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Religion and politics: friends or mortal enemies?


During John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the 1960s, Kennedy found himself under a great deal of scrutiny because of his Roman Catholic background.  Many Republicans attacked Kennedy by saying that if he became president, he would be too heavily influenced by the papacy.  Many feared that this influence would affect the way he would lead the country and would jeopardize America’s longstanding freedom of religion.  

This scrutiny was so great that on Sept. 12, 1960, he delivered a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association regarding his religion and the role it would play in his politics.  In regard to whether or not he would be influenced by the papacy or his personal religious convictions if elected, he states, “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 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.”  

Fast forward a little over 50 years, and you’ll find religion and politics in the headlines again due to certain pieces of legislation that the Catholic church sees as infringing upon its religious liberties.  The most well-known instance of this is the recent Birth Control mandate added to President Obama’s healthcare plan.  This mandate would make insurance companies provide birth control to women free of charge even if their employer is a faith-based institution that is against contraception.  Despite the fact that the employer would in no way have to pay for this service, the Catholic church in particular saw this as an attack on their beliefs.  

The Catholic church has also been upset by other pieces of legislation as well.  State immigration laws passed by several statse, but particularly Alabama, have made it illegal to “harbor” undocumented immigrants.  In Alabama, Catholic bishops along with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops in the state, filed a suit against the law because they see it as preventing them from practicing Christian charity and “pastoral care” to those immigrants.  And, indeed it would potentially prevent actions like giving an undocumented person a ride to church or a priest receiving his or her confession because such actions could be interpreted as “harboring” an illegal immigrant.  

So the question begins to arise: What is the proper relationship between politics and religion, especially for the president?  Or should there even be one at all?  The question is difficult to answer because most of us are fine with the two overlapping so long as we agree with the overlap, but as soon as we are offended, we begin raging against the relationship and saying that politics and religion shouldn’t mix.  Our first instinct tends to be that religious beliefs should not mingle with political action; however,  most of us admire the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the political changes that he inspired.  He was most certainly a religiously- motivated man, but because we like his cause, we have no problem with the combined use of religion and politics.  On the other hand, bring up gay marriage, and the public response on how much religion should be considered in legislation isn’t as united.  How do we decide where the line is drawn?

Honestly, that question is loaded and not entirely fair because the line may not stay in the same place for every situation.  But I do agree with Kennedy when he states,” I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.”  Do I want a “godless” president?  Not necessarily, but the argument could be made that his or her personal deity or lack thereof should not be an influence either way because a president’s job is not to lead a country spiritually, but politically and to uphold the values that she is built upon.  A presidential candidate is to be judged on his political stances and actions not his religious beliefs. 


Megan Massey is a junior religious studies major from Mount Olive. Follow her on Twitter @megan_massey.