IT was more than a quarter of a century ago that John F. Kennedy tried to allay fears that if he were elected president of the United States, he would embrace close ties with the Vatican. As chief executive, Kennedy never denied his personal commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. But he was able to keep separate his religious views from his public mandate.
Although no other Catholic has served in the Oval Office, the so-called ``religious test'' for high office has today virtually disappeared.
James Wall, editor of the Christian Century, writes that most people are not even aware of the denominational affiliations of the 1988 presidential hopefuls. And this is perhaps even more significant since two candidates - Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson - were ordained as Baptist ministers.
``Church membership on the part of presidential candidates is still assumed,'' says the Rev. Mr. Wall, ``but only its absence would hurt a candidate....''
Ronald Reagan - perhaps more than any other President - has brought the religious issue into the political arena, at least in the form of rhetoric. Mr. Reagan appointed an ambassador to the Vatican, campaigned for school prayer and public aid to parochial schools, and openly cozied up to the social agenda of right-wing fundamentalists. His own religious beliefs, however (he is a Protestant), have never been an issue.
In fact, it was not until Jimmy Carter publicly declared himself a born-again Christian in his quest for the White House in 1976 that Reagan (who lost the bid for the Republican nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford) also formally affirmed his commitment to religious values.
Just last week, religion was injected into the Senate confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court hopeful Anthony Kennedy. Asked about his views on abortion as a practicing Catholic, Judge Kennedy sorted out his public responsibilities from his church commitment in much the same way another Kennedy did earlier.
``It would be highly improper for a judge to allow his or her own personal or religious views to enter into a decision respecting a constitutional matter,'' the nominee said.
He added that there were many books he did not read - and did not recommend that his children read. Kennedy stressed, however, that this wouldn't prevent him from enforcing the First Amendment protections for such books.
This is a healthy attitude for a public figure in a nation that embraces religious diversity and preaches tolerance for a variety of views.
In the current Public Broadcasting Service TV series ``God and Politics,'' Bill Moyers examines the dangers of carving out a political and social agenda based on one's personal view of Deity and the Bible.
In one segment, Mr. Moyers shows a split among Methodists regarding the role of missionaries in Central America. ``Some Methodists,'' the commentator says, ``believe that their faith dictates that they work toward social justice.
``They actively support the Sandinistas and liberation theology - an interpretation of the Bible now being advanced by many bishops and priests in Latin America which requires a commitment to the poor and the oppressed.
``Opposing them are conservatives, evangelicals, and fundamentalists who equate liberation theology with support for communism.''
``The `Kingdom of God' is split asunder in the application of faith to politics,'' Moyers says.
A similar schism exists over domestic issues among Southern Baptists - America's largest Protestant denomination. This 15 million-member group is sharply divided over abortion and school prayer.
The point is that a Methodist is no more or less a Methodist whether he supports the contras or the Sandinistas. And a Baptist is still a Baptist regardless of his position on separation of church and state.
The recent visit of Pope John Paul II to the US spotlighted conflicting positions of US Catholics on abortion, birth control, and women priests.
Similarly, American Jews voice various views over the Middle East and even approach the Holocaust from different perspectives.
Diverse approaches need not be divisive. Religious freedom depends on diversity among religions and within denominations. And devotion to Deity necessitates not only tolerance but also understanding.
A Thursday column