The presidential race and religion

Somehow I thought after covering the presidential campaign of 40 years ago that I had seen the end of "religion" as an important issue. How wrong I was. And how different the issue is today.

Back then Sen. John F. Kennedy was seeking to persuade voters how secular he really was. Now some candidates have brought their religious beliefs into the campaign.

In 1960, Senator Kennedy was up against the widespread belief that voter resistance would permanently bar a Roman Catholic from becoming president. After he had filled out the necessary papers to enter the Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries, Kennedy sat me down beside him on his private plane in Lincoln, Neb., and, as we flew to Washington D.C., spent some time discussing what he called his "religious problem."

He said talk about how he, as president, would rely on the pope's advice was "nonsense."

"How ridiculous," he said.

"I'm really not very religious," he told me. "I seldom go to church. And all this talk about priests telling their flocks how to vote: I've never seen any of that. No priest has ever pressured me." Then he added, most convincingly: "I firmly believe in the separation of church and state."

A few weeks later, Kennedy made this same case before a Baptist group in the South. And then, by holding to this position during the campaign, he was able to dispel enough fears among the electorate to overcome the Catholic roadblock to the presidency.

I now ask myself this question: What if Kennedy had asserted publicly at this time that his life had been transformed by Christ and/or Mary? Wouldn't that have been taken as a chipping away at the wall between church and state? And wouldn't the presidency then have been denied him by the voters?

So how should we look at the expressions of faith from our candidates - from Bush, Bauer, Hatch, and Gore? Are they sincere? I think so. I have no doubt that these men have had their lives greatly enriched by their reliance on God.

But are such words of faith appropriate in a presidential campaign? That's the question.

Certainly, if a reporter or voter asks a candidate about his religious beliefs, it may well be that it is perfectly correct for him to answer if he so desires. Indeed, it's arguable that such information tells something about the candidate that the public needs to know today - about his character.

But I think the position of Bill Bradley - that he sees such a subject to be a private one and, therefore, he will not respond to questions about his religion and faith - is the better, certainly safer, course of action for our candidates to take if the wall between church and state is to be scrupulously maintained.

And just as Roman Catholic candidates once stirred up fears among Protestants, the current expressions of faith among the non-Catholic candidates is causing distress among many Catholics.

Indeed, two of my columnist friends who are Catholics have written that these candidates' claims of born-again transformations are strange to them and make them feel left out. They add that such expressions of faith fall harshly on the ears of millions of voters who don't embrace the born-again concept.

Also, even after we concede the genuineness of these candidates' religious expressions, we still have to conclude that these men cannot be unmindful, when they utter these words of faith, that they will be well received among many voters.

In fact, a substantial number of voters in the upcoming Iowa caucuses would be religiously inclined to welcome such expressions. Thus, those candidates will (perhaps very unfairly) be accused by some of pandering.

It's a terribly difficult assessment to make: How much of all this talk of faith and religion is appropriate?

I, myself, am happy that these candidates have gotten so much good out of relying on God.

But I'm much more comfortable with the approach that keeps one's faith private. And I'm sure that the private approach is the only one that ensures that the separation of church and state will be maintained.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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