Religion, politics and the coming election

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice -- where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind -- and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood."

The aforementioned words were spoken by John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance on Sept. 12, 1960. JFK's remarks may have saved his candidacy. While it is hard to imagine now, there was some fear back then of electing a Roman Catholic president. (To my friends in the Catholic Church who have in the past been concerned about any remarks of mine written about Catholicism, this is merely stating a fact.) Kennedy knew he had to address the issue head on, and he did. He effectively quashed anxiety from those who feared that JFK, if elected, would take orders from Pope John XXIII.

In a little over a week, Americans again go to the polls to elect a president. The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, is a lifelong active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He's a Mormon. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association long has referred to Mormonism as a cult. Earlier this month, however, the BGEA quietly removed the "cults" page from its website. Mr. Graham, the nearly 94-year old patriarch of the BGEA and arguably America's most well-known and respected Protestant leader, met with Romney recently and declared that he would do "whatever he could" to help the GOP nominee win.

How much things have changed in barely over half a century. JFK, a man who never held a position of leadership in his church, was under a white-hot microscope for his religious preference. Romney, who served two years overseas as a Mormon missionary and was a long-time LDS bishop, is in 2012 facing little scrutiny whatsoever for his faith. Has religion become irrelevant to the voters? (The Pew Forum recently reported that 20 percent of Americans have no religious preference -- the highest non-theist percentage ever recorded in the U.S.) Or, have we entered a season in which religious tolerance is the rule not the exception? I hope the latter is true. In a wired world, in a global marketplace, where so many of us today have contact with people of different cultures and religious ideas, I suspect we may now respectfully disagree with the faith statement of others; while in an earlier time, we attacked it.

JFK's Houston address warned of the dangerousness of religious bigotry. Read this short excerpt as this column closes and then covenant to go and vote your conscience on Nov. 6:

"While this year (1960) it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you, until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

We've come a long way since Kennedy's late-summer speech of long ago.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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