Thanks to Howard Friedman for reminding me that today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's famous campaign speech about separation of church and state, given here in Houston before an audience of Protestant ministers 50 years ago. It is a shame that Kennedy's brilliant words upholding separation of church and state and pledging to follow the law instead of church teaching are not endorsed by our current politicians. We would have a more tolerant society if today's politicians would take the Kennedy pledge:
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 parishoners 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....
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.
But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.Instead, former Pennsylvania Republican Roman Catholic Senator Rick Santorum visited a Catholic school in Houston this week in order to reject Kennedy's approach to politics. Santorum thinks that Catholic politicians should govern by their faith, which includes opposing gay equality and reproductive freedom, issues on which Kennedy would have follow the Constitution. The Wisconsin Catholic bishops have just drafted a letter telling Catholics how to vote in upcoming elections. In Hawaii, supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann are urging Republican voters to cross party lines and vote for Hannemann in order to show their opposition to Neil Abercrombie because he declares no religious affiliation (and therefore may support gay marriage).
President Obama has repeatedly refused to take the Kennedy pledge, preferring to campaign on his religious values, his church membership, and his status as a mainstream Christian. Too bad the first Muslim president didn't learn the first Catholic president's lesson: only a secular government can assure religious freedom. Don't worry, I know the president is not Muslim, but believe he would have convinced the country of that more easilyif he had taken the Kennedy pledge to govern by the Constitution instead of his own Christian faith. Or Muslim faith. Or any faith. Even in response to all the anti-Muslim sentiment in the country he spoke about his own religion at his recent press conference:
And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation. And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise. But I’m also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles.
Everybody battling side by side in defense of his own religious values. That is not what President Kennedy had in mind.