Remember the Separation Between Church and State

Let's discuss the Christian right and its influence on American politics through its political arm, the Christian Coalition.

But, first, look back to an interview I had with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on the eve of the 1960 primaries. Mr. Kennedy had seated me next to him on his private plane as we flew back to Washington from the Midwest, where he had just formally entered the Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries.

He expressed his views on a wide range of subjects during our several-hour conversation. But the topic he clearly was most eager to talk about was what his being a Roman Catholic would mean to our country if he made it to the presidency.

Kennedy said he knew the main obstacle to his getting to the White House was the fear of so many voters that a Catholic president would be influenced in his decisions by the Catholic Church.

"I know what so many people are saying," he said, "that I would be listening to the pope in making my decisions." He said this was "absolutely nonsense."

He vowed not once, but several times, to maintain the separation between church and state if he became president. "But," he added, a note of desperation in his voice, "how am I ever going to convince people that I mean what I'm saying on this?"

Not long after that interview, Kennedy explained this point of view to a convention of Baptists in the South. His presentation was so convincing that he eased some anxieties on the subject. And later, as president, he was deemed as secular a president as any of his predecessors.

The Roman Catholic Church had once played a highly influential role in American politics - particularly in big-city politics. But it seems to me that Kennedy's election, and his hewing to the line on maintaining church-state separation, marked the end of the church's activities in the political arena. Although its influence may still be evident in some elections, we hear little or nothing about it.

BUT we do hear about the growing influence of the Christian Coalition, a Protestant alliance located mainly in the South. It claims its bonding is based entirely on shared values and not on partisan politics. But the way this group's leaders speak out on issues and work to elect candidates who support those positions - well, it certainly looks like the heavy hand of church being applied to the political process.

I can hear the voices of rebuttal saying: "We in the Christian Coalition are not partisan. You will notice that we back Democrats as well as Republicans."

That's true. But the Christian Coalition will only march its legions into battle to aid a conservative Democrat.

And what's wrong with backing conservatives? Absolutely nothing. It's the breach in the wall that should separate church and state that I think is wrong. It would be just as wrong if the group mounted its support for a liberal.

I share many of the "family values" that the Christian right - and its political arm, the Christian Coalition - support. I've also met a number of younger people who are a part of this movement. They are clean-cut, great kids. The coalition's former spokesman, Ralph Reed, was a guest of the Monitor breakfast group recently. He's a bright and appealing fellow.

Parents involved in this religious movement are doubtless doing a fine job instilling these values in their children. And by doing so, they have been quite successful in creating a drug-free and crime-free family life.

What bothers me are polls showing what a powerful political force nationally the Christian right has become, particularly in presidential elections.

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