Let’s not have a religious test for public officials, the idealists will scoff at our little riddle. And we join them in expressing that view. Politicians are to be accepted or rejected not on their personal religious faith, but on their skills, intellect, integrity, intelligence and resume. Where, how (or even if) a candidate worships doesn’t enter into it.
Except, of course, when it does, which is most of the time.
Running in 1960, John F. Kennedy felt it necessary to calm fears over his Roman Catholicism, particularly worries expressed by Protestant voters in the South. Candidate Kennedy, addressing a ministerial association in Houston, famously said, “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.”
He added, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
Almost five decades after Kennedy cleared the air, much has changed. The Christian son of a Muslim father is president of the United States. (Did we mention his middle name is “Hussein?”) Yet, Barack Obama’s political foes have preferred a less-clear air, spinning out fevered conspiracies that he is a “secret Muslim” or that he possessed a “phony theology,” as Republican Rick Santorum recently remarked.
Santorum, a faithful Roman Catholic, has spent much of the 2012 campaign presenting himself as the opposite of Kennedy in 1960. The former senator from Pennsylvania was sickened to the point where he “almost threw up” over Kennedy’s declaration that, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
In Santorum’s view, “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”
Santorum as well as his fellow Roman Catholic Newt Gingrich, who converted around the time of his third marriage, Ron Paul (a Baptist) and Mitt Romney (a Mormon) are vying for votes in two Deep South states. Gingrich and Santorum are expected to be extremely competitive next Tuesday in both Alabama and Mississippi, just as they were on Super Tuesday in states south of the Mason-Dixon.
Gingrich won his home state of Georgia while Santorum was the winner in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Romney, who leads the field with the most delegates, has had a problem collecting votes in the South. He did win Virginia on Super Tuesday, but Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot there.
We’re left with much to puzzle over. Is the religious faith of Santorum and Gingrich less relevant to Southern voters than it might have been decades ago? That’s quite likely. The South of 1960 is far different than the one of today.
Is Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints harming him with Southern Republicans, most of whom are evangelical Christians who view Mormonism with suspicion? Polling suggests that this premise holds water.
However, Romney is more than his religion. He is the one-time governor of a liberal state. His ideology is described as somewhere between moderate and wildly liberal by conservative Republicans who have turned government into the enemy.
Romney’s challenge between church (as represented by his Mormonism) and state (as represented by his at least passing references to using the power of government for good) may be more difficult than the one faced by Kennedy in 1960.