Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one. – Thomas Jefferson
On September 12, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy, hoping to dispel concerns over the role his Catholic faith would play in the event he became President of the United States, gave a speech on the role of religion in public life before a group of protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Kennedy said. “Whatever issue may come before me as president – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
Although he did not say how his moral conscience or personal ethics may have been shaped or molded by Catholicism, Kennedy assured his audience, and ultimately the American public, that his personal religious beliefs, whatever they might be, would not play a role in fulfilling his duties as president. In his official actions, on issues as wide ranging as the economy and foreign affairs, from policies addressing poverty at home and economic aid abroad, to prayer in school and matters of war and peace, President Kennedy would not be influenced by his religious convictions.
Kennedy’s view on the public neutrality of government in matters of faith has been the standard liberal position for most of my lifetime; whatever a candidate or elected government official may believe or not on matters of faith should have no role in how the nation is governed. It is a uniquely American belief, embedded in the nation’s founding and reflected in our Constitution. The separation of church and state as set forth in the First Amendment is as essential to American notions of freedom as any constitutional doctrine upon which our democracy is based.
For Thomas Jefferson and many of our Founding Fathers, the ideals of religious freedom were more important than one’s specific religion. In Jefferson’s time, and for the next 150 years or so when the religion of most Presidents deviated little from mainstream Protestantism and religion was not used as a wedge issue in presidential politics, it was easy to maintain a principled and neutral view regarding a candidate’s faith. For me personally, and for most liberals (and many others), the principle that religious faith is a private matter, which should have no bearing on a candidate’s public responsibilities, has always been accepted wisdom.
Kennedy’s presidency put to rest the unfounded fears concerning a Catholic president. Not until Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 did a candidate’s religious beliefs again become a matter of some notoriety. Indeed, Carter’s brand of born-again Christianity made certain segments of the Democratic Party uncomfortable, particularly the secular left and many Jews, 40% of whom broke from their historically Democratic leanings to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Although I believe that this was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding of Carter’s faith -- which emphasizes a concern for all of God’s people and is what motivates his passion for human rights -- and a failure to distinguish Carter’s brand of Christianity from the more conservative elements that dominate evangelical Christianity today, it was also a reflection of America’s ambivalence toward expressions of religion in public life.
Ironically, it was Reagan’s presidency and the ascendancy of right-wing conservatism in the 1980’s that introduced a more aggressive form of politically inspired religion into the public arena. It was during this era when we witnessed the rise of the Moral Majority and the prominence of televangelists such as Pat Robertson, who advocated a conservative political agenda and founded the Christian Coalition and other socially conservative “Christian” groups that advocated a reversal of Roe v. Wade and the outlawing of abortion, pushed for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between a man and a woman, and called for the re-establishment of prayer in the public schools and public displays of religious symbolism.
As someone who was raised in a mainline protestant denomination, one which engages in public advocacy in a manner more respectful of America’s diverse religious and ethnic makeup, I am continually perplexed that conservative, often fundamentalist, Christians so dominate our public discourse. That the media makes little effort to point out the many misconceptions these self-proclaimed Christians have concerning their own religion and their lack of respect for the religious diversity and pluralistic traditions of American democracy, only adds to my frustration.
But while religious conservatives tend to dominate discussions of morality in the public square (particularly on issues of personal morality, to the exclusion of issues like economic justice and peace), liberals too often fail to understand the significance of religion in public life and are often reluctant to openly connect religious and moral principles to the issues that most matter to them. On this, our current president is different.
On June 28, 2006, forty-six years after Kennedy’s speech in Houston, then Senator Barack Obama reflected on what he perceived to be the role of religion in public life and how his personal faith has guided his own values and beliefs. Unlike Kennedy, Obama argues for the relevance of religion to political argument, declaring it particularly apt for liberals and progressives. For Obama, it is a mistake for progressives to “abandon the field of religious discourse” in politics. “The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.” Obama contends that religion is, historically and culturally, a source of political rhetoric that resonates with many Americans, who comparatively speaking are a religiously inspired and devout people. He recognizes that the solution to many policy issues, from social and economic problems to issues of war and peace, require consideration of the moral dimensions of those problems.
“Our fear of getting ‘preachy’ may . . . lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems,” Obama said. But to address problems like “poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed” often requires “changes in hearts and a change in minds.” Obama believes it a grave mistake to insist on a complete separation of religious conviction from public life, or to insist that moral and religious convictions are irrelevant to one’s views of politics and law.
Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
As different as Obama’s and Kennedy’s statements are concerning the role of religion and public life, they actually concern two different notions. For Kennedy, it was important to emphasize that a President’s duty is to his country and the Constitution. He was attempting to counter the concerns then being expressed in some parts of the country to a Catholic president. Although some of this concern was simply anti-Catholic prejudice, there was at the time a sincere worry as to whether a Catholic president would be beholden to the Vatican and Catholic doctrine in the conduct of his public affairs. Similar concerns have been raised, and properly dismissed, of the potential influence the Mormon Church may hold on a candidate such as Mitt Romney. Indeed, Romney, who holds a position of importance in the Mormon Church and who proudly identifies as a Mormon, gave a speech in 2007 not dissimilar from Kennedy’s.
That Obama believes one’s religious convictions are relevant to politics and policymaking, however, does not mean he disagrees with Kennedy’s view of the official separation of churchly influence on public policy. What Obama contends is something altogether different – the notion that one cannot truly separate out the moral and religious influences on a candidate’s life and, ultimately, his or her policy positions. As I watch from afar the Republican presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, I believe it is important to know something about what the candidates believe, religiously, morally, and spiritually, and how those beliefs may affect their actions should they become president. Personally, any candidate who believes that evolution and creationism are worthy of equal treatment in our public schools, or who doubts the scientific efficacy of climate change and its importance to our planet’s future, is not a candidate I can trust to have a reasonable conclusion about anything. If a candidate’s brand of Christianity is one of judgmental piety, or is based on a literalistic misinterpretation of the Bible, it is a candidate I cannot support.
Although I do not care what religion our past, present, and future presidents are (or are not), I do care what moral and religious influences motivate their positions on matters of policy. One’s religion (or lack thereof) is an important part of one’s worldview and should not be off limits for any candidate. President Kennedy’s youngest brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, who symbolized and articulated a consistent vision of political liberalism for over forty years after his brother’s death, noted late in life that his politics were very much influenced by his Christian beliefs, specifically in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Matthew 25: 44-45 (Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? [Jesus replied,] I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.) This religious underpinning of Christian social justice, which molded the likes of Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day, and which forms the basis of Catholic social statements on economic justice, is what motivated Senator Kennedy in his lifetime to work for laws and government programs that benefitted the poor and the working class, to fight for human rights around the world, and to oppose discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. It is this kind of morality, not one’s personal moral shortcomings, which are of greatest concern to me in how a candidate will govern a country as diverse and complex as the United States.
Of course, one need not be a Christian to share Kennedy’s political vision, or to believe in equality, justice, and the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to quality health care, adequate housing, and economic opportunity. There are certainly many other moral and ethical influences to his brand of liberalism and a belief in the common good. But whether one is motivated by Christian or Jewish or secular ethical principles, I believe it relevant and important to know what religious and moral influences underlie a candidate’s positions.
The separation of church and state is a fundamental aspect of American constitutional democracy, and must never be diluted. A free society depends on a proper distinction between theology and law, between the free exercise of religious belief and the imposition of religious doctrine. But the personal influences and beliefs of our political leaders is always a relevant consideration in deciding whether they can effectively lead the nation in times of turbulence and despair, and whether their vision of America is one I can abide.