Memo To Candidates

Learn A Lesson From John F. Kennedy

I spent much of the week before the Democratic National Convention talking to the press about Vice President Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Since Americans United is strictly non-partisan, I expressed no opinion about the wisdom of the selection. However, there was plenty to talk about as soon as Sen. Lieberman introduced himself to voters in a speech that began with a prayer, continued with a recitation from the Book of Chronicles, and contained close to 30 religious references.

Was this an "over the top" effort to interject yet more religion into a presidential campaign already over-saturated with religiosity and pandering? When I was in law school I took a course in torts and personal injury law. There is something called the "one bite rule." The basic principle is that you're less likely to win a lawsuit against your neighbor if his dog has never bitten anyone until you. The dog was not previously known as a biter. The second person who gets a chunk of flesh removed will be in a much stronger legal position.

I took the same initial view of the senator's speech, including an hour-long interview I did on CNN right after he made it. Those of us inside the Beltway know Lieberman to be a sincerely devoted Orthodox Jew who says his faith is his moral compass. Most Americans, however, had never even heard of him prior to his selection as Gore's vice presidential pick. He took the opportunity of his selection speech to convey the importance of his personal religious devotion, and most Americans took it that way.

But here is my concern. After he said it and explained himself, it was time to move on. So far, he seems generally to have done so. If Lieberman or other candidates decide to begin every political pep-talk with a prayer and a Bible verse or state their position and a proof text of Scripture to boot, their actions will quickly proceed from being personal affirmations to political pandering. In other words, in a presidential campaign what we need is an emphasis on policy, not piety

I'm convinced that most of us want the candidates to discuss what they see as the real solutions to the challenges that still face our nation. Repeated reliance on personal statements of faith would be seen by many as the exploitation of religion, even its cheapening by rhetorical repetition. This manipulation wouldn't benefit the political process or religion itself.

Regrettably, this campaign has already been marred by inappropriate church-state mixing. It was wrong for Gore to go to a New York church in February to receive a from-the-pulpit endorsement by the Rev. Floyd Flake, a powerful pastor. It was at least equally troubling when the Republican National Convention planners beamed into the hall via satellite the Rev. Herbert Lusk from his Philadelphia pulpit to announce that he (and apparently his entire congregation) was supporting George W. Bush. I should point out that even Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice has produced a pamphlet of "do's and don'ts" for pastors that specifically recommends against political endorsements from the pulpit. Of course, it's also hard to overlook that we've been told by one of Gore's chief policy lieutenants that the Democrats are going to "take God back this time" and that Bush declared "Jesus Day" in Texas on June l0.

I hope all Americans celebrate that a Jewish-American has finally been added to a national ticket. This reflects our ongoing respect for the full inclusion of religious minorities in our national life. After all, America is home to nearly 2,000 faith groups and millions of non-believers so in one sense we're a nation of "minorities." This choice also honors a pre-Bill of Rights constitutional principle in Article VI of the Constitution, the prohibition against any religious test for public office. In this country, an individual's religious or humanist commitments cannot disqualify him or her from service.

But is it too much to ask for a candidate to say that he or she will not use the government to promote personal religious beliefs? Forty years ago, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy did just that. He journeyed to Houston to talk to a Protestant ministerial association and made it clear that his Catholic faith would not undermine his commitment to the Constitution. Some say the speech won him the election. Kennedy said, "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 a Catholic, how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote...."

Kennedy's words are as true today. It is past time for all candidates to remember that this is a presidential campaign, not a holy war. This is a race for president, not preacher. The winner in November will swear allegiance in January to the Constitution, not any sacred text.

People, quite properly, get nervous when candidates appear to work harder explaining what God means to them than what they intend to do about public education, our decayed health care system or national defense. John Kennedy had it right. What I wouldn't give to have candidates in the fall debates repeat his words.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.