WASHINGTON--Among the many surprises in this year's riveting presidential nomination campaign, none has been greater than the emergence of the religious issue that has been dormant since 1960, when John F. Kennedy confronted the nation's voters with the prospect of a Roman Catholic president.
At the outset of the year, nothing suggested that would be the case. On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley made it clear he would keep his religion private, and Vice President Al Gore, after describing his faith, made little effort to publicize it.
The original Christian conservative Republican favorite, Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, decided not to run, and support from that constituency was divided six ways. George W. Bush was one of the claimants, but he was not identified as a religious right candidate any more than John McCain, who also had a solid anti-abortion record.
Early on, both Bush and Gore won broad praise for speeches proposing more use of faith-based organizations, in cooperation with government, in solving the nation's toughest social problems--drugs, crime, homelessness and teen-age pregnancy. Their addresses showed a clear understanding of, and respect for, the constitutional principles defining the relationship between church and state.
It is far deeper and more complex than suggested by the stock phrase, ''separation of church and state.'' This is a church-going country, and political candidates and elected officials regularly bring their messages into the pulpits. Some of the most significant political and social movements in our history--from emancipation and prohibition to civil rights and the struggles over Vietnam and abortion--have emerged from the churches.
Religion came into this year's campaign--in divisive fashion--because of actions by Bush and McCain that both men have come to regret.
The problem started last month in South Carolina when Bush appeared at Bob Jones University, whose fundamentalist leaders had for years interpreted the Bible to bar interracial dating among students and to castigate the Catholic church. Bush remained silent on those offensive views until he was off the campus--a ''missed opportunity'' for which he later apologized. Meantime, Pat Robertson, the leader of the Christian Coalition and a one-time presidential candidate himself, launched a mail and telephone blitz condemning McCain, whose campaign-finance legislation is strongly opposed by the major anti-abortion groups.
The assault damaged McCain in South Carolina, and he retaliated by two steps--phone calls to Catholic voters in Michigan and other states, pointing out Bush's association with the Bob Jones leaders and, later, a speech in Robertson's home city, accusing him and fellow-preacher Jerry Falwell of being ''corrupting influences on religion and politics ... who shame our faith, our party and our country.''
McCain had grounds to claim that ''they distort my pro-life positions and smear the reputation of my supporters,'' such as former Sen. Warren Rudman. While he said he would ''embrace the fine members of the religious conservative community,'' his extreme language about Robertson and Falwell--accusing them of practicing ''the tactics of division and slander''--clearly antagonized their followers. And his labeling Bush as ''a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore'' came close to doing the very thing for which he faulted Robertson and Falwell.
The uproar gave McCain what one Republican consultant called ''the four worst days of his campaign.'' But his and Bush's forays into the thicket of religion and politics remind everyone of some important lessons.
Americans welcome the sight of their presidents--or presidential candidates--seeking spiritual counsel.
But voters do not want their presidents taking orders from preachers or rabbis or priests--or going to war against prominent clergymen. The text for this lesson was written by John Kennedy in the 1960 campaign--a race in which attacks on the tenets of his Catholic faith were far more scurrilous than anything to which McCain was subjected this year.
At the height of the uproar, Kennedy addressed a large gathering of Protestant clergymen at the Houston Ministerial Association. He did not attack his critics, but instead stated his principles so clearly as to shame them.
''I believe,'' Kennedy said, ''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--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.''
When the religious issue arises, it is the Kennedy answer that politicians should remember.
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