Mixing Religion and Politics Always a Disaster

Welcome to another edition of “Crossfire”!

Today, two authorities will face off on a question that was asked by bigots in generations past and was answered – for all time, we thought – in 1960. Yet it arose again last year, raised not by bigots but by believers.

Can Americans ever again elect a Roman Catholic as president with assurance that our president will not govern by taking dictation from the pope?

Let’s meet our famous guests.

From Boston, John F. Kennedy. In September 1960, as a presidential candidate, he dealt head-on with this question before the Houston Ministerial Association. He eased concerns and was narrowly elected America’s first Catholic president. His words today are taken from his words that day.

From Bavaria, Germany, and now Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI. In June 2004, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he dealt head-on with this issue in his role as arbiter of church orthodoxy. With abortion an issue in U.S. politics and John Kerry, a Catholic, running for president, Ratzinger wrote a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., outlining how the Catholic Church will treat politicians who don’t conform to church dictates. His words today are taken from his words that day.

Gentlemen, welcome to “Crossfire.”

KENNEDY: “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. …”

BENEDICT: “The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. … In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it.’ ” (His quote cites a church encyclical, or statement of doctrine.)

KENNEDY: “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. …”

BENEDICT: “Christians have a ‘grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. … This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it.’ ” (His quote cites a church encyclical.)

KENNEDY: “I ask you tonight … to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress … instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic Church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries. …”

BENEDICT: “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him … informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

KENNEDY: “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 these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

In 2004, a presidential candidate’s Catholicism was again thrust into campaign controversy by robed men in pointy hats _ not Protestant Klansmen, this time, but Catholic clergy. Kerry, a flawed candidate, treaded the path charted by Kennedy. Yet, opposed by his church, Kerry lost the presidency because he lost Ohio _ because he lost the state’s Catholic vote.

The church, a silent observer in 1960, is an interventionist today. It is no longer certain that even the courageous and eloquent Kennedy, whose independent words so assured Americans 45 years ago, could be elected president today. Not as long as the new pope is determined to pursue those “outside religious pressures” and “dictates” that JFK decried and few of us ever believed would really happen.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)