The Republican presidential primary keeps raising interesting questions regarding the role of religion in the body politic. At one point Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was suspect – and still is in the mind of many voters. Evangelical Christians are certainly correct when they suggest that Mormons are not orthodox Christians. Whether Christian orthodoxy should be a requirement for office is another question.
I have already mentioned Rick Santorum’s assessment that President Obama’s views on the environment are unbiblical . More than one Roman Catholic commentator has since pointed out that concern for the environment is a mainstay of contemporary Catholic ethics – from the pope right down to the bishops in the United States. Apparently Mr. Santorum reads a Bible different from that read by the pope and the bishops.
Keeping the pot stirred, Mr. Santorum has also said that when he read President Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, delivered in 1960, he found it so offensive that he wanted to vomit. The way Mr. Santorum reads the speech, Kennedy was saying that people of faith have no legitimate role in the public square.
That’s not quite what JFK said. Here’s a portion of the speech:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
It’s possible to read Kennedy’s speech as overstating his case. One might conclude that Kennedy was saying that religion should be a strictly private affair, unrelated to public policy. That seems to be Mr. Santorum’s take. He wants to keep faith in the public square. So do I.
But JFK’s speech doesn’t make me nauseous; it makes me proud. Here’s what JFK said about religion as a private matter:
. . . I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
When Kennedy said religion is “private” he meant that there should be no religious test for office and that office holders should not impose their religious beliefs upon others. He didn’t say that religious convictions are irrelevant.
I would hope that a candidate whose faith tradition teaches that all people are equal in the sight of God would own that conviction and put it to work pursuing equality under the law. Conversely, if a candidate’s faith tradition teaches that some people — gays and lesbians, for instance — are inferior in God’s eyes, the voters are entitled to know whether the candidate concurs and will act accordingly.
In 1778 American Presbyterians drew up some principles for church order. Those presbyters agreed . . .
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it. (Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church, USA)
Those old-fashioned Presbyterians were right. Nothing is more absurd than the notion that it is of no consequence what a person’s opinions are. There should be no religious test for office. On the other hand, opinions — including opinions influenced by religion — do matter.