Political Beliefs

Evangelicals recently met to reach a consensus on which candidate not named Mitt Romney they should support for the Republican presidential nomination. The irony is not only in the location of the meeting, but who they decided to support.

As anyone paying attention to presidential politics knows, the evangelicals threw their Christian weight behind the candidacy of Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum is Catholic. The evangelicals met in Texas, near Houston.

What’s the irony? Let me explain.

In September 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he addressed the divisive issue of religion in the U.S. presidential campaign. The controversy was over Kennedy’s Catholicism and fears by many that a Catholic president will find his loyalty divided between his nation and his church. The Pope may become puppet master, some suggested, pulling the president’s strings.

Kennedy’s speech helped blunt that criticism, or at least shift the nation’s attention away from Catholicism and to more pressing issues such as Communism and Cuba and the economy.

How times have changed. Except not so much.

Mormonism, it seems, is the new Catholicism.

It’s useful, I believe, to recall Kennedy’s words from some 50 years ago. In his speech he both said what many wanted to hear – that he was independent of the Vatican – but also perhaps what they didn’t want to hear, that he felt government and religion must remain separate. “No Catholic has ever been elected president,” he said, and by raising the matter, “the real issues of this campaign have been obscured.”

Kennedy then made a compelling point: the election should not be about what religion he believes in, which he argued should be of importance only to himself, but “what kind of America I believe in.”

He continued:

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 accept 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.

You can see how these words might upset some religious leaders today, not only Protestant conservatives but even many Catholics, bishops and higher, who dearly want to impose their will on the public acts of officials.

Santorum, a conservative Catholic not to be confused with the Catholicism of John Kerry or even JFK, won three-quarters of the evangelical votes at that ranch just outside Houston. In fairness, in seeking a viable alternative to Romney the evangelicals emphasized not his religion but his moderate political stances and perceived wavering on such core issues as abortion and gay marriage. Nevertheless, many conservative Christians have been less than, er, Christian, at least when it comes to Romney’s Mormonism. Some have even tried to separate Mormons from the Christian flock.

The cynic in me says it’s all about religion, not matter how hard they try to paint it as political differences. The realist in me says it’s a mix of politics and religion, and that these “moderate” political differences mask a deeper religious suspicion that while many won’t say, most probably feel.

And as Kennedy suggested in Houston so very long ago, those differences are not only unimportant, they come very close to being un-American.

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Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com

3 Comments
  1. I think it was Rachel Maddow who reported that the religious were not unanimous and because the evangelicals were encouraged to leave before the third ballot where Santorum was picked, they feel tricked. 
    Personally, I think religions were separated out because the founders didn’t want to be bogged down by sectarian squabbles.  They had a point.

  2. The 1st Amendment to our
    Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting and
    establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise
    thereof…” Our founding father wanted to ensure that the Federal
    government would not create an official state religion like Great
    Britain did with the Church of England. The “Separation of church
    and state” concept is a fabrication of the minds of politicians and
    Supreme Court justices intent on legislating from the bench.

    That being said, a politician’s
    spiritual life can be a substantial component of his political belief
    system, but I would be hard pressed to recall an elected official who
    tried to impose his religion on his constituents. The argument that a
    candidate’s religious leaders will substantially affect his political
    decisions is a red herring at best and a foolish argument at worst. A
    person’s value system is derived from many sources and religion may,
    or may not, be one of those sources.

    Referring to Santorum as a
    “Conservative Catholic” is not only a misuse of adjectives, it
    shows a misunderstanding of the Roman Catholic Church in the US. Did
    you mean he is a political conservative who happens to be a Roman
    Catholic, or did you mean he practices the Roman Rite as compared to
    the Vatican II rite?

  3. Frank Povah

    Why someone standing for office – other than office in a religious institution – feels obligated to express their adherence to the whims of whatever idol, god or spirit they endorse is beyond me. I would never vote for anyone who publicly touts their so-called faith.

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