The appropriate role of religion in politics has emerged as a major point of discussion in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Earlier this week, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore selected as his running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish American chosen to run for national office. In Lieberman's first speech, the Connecticut senator, who is known for his personal religious devotion, began his address with a prayer and a quote from the biblical book of Chronicles.
This event and other religion-related developments in the presidential campaign have sparked national reflection on the relationship between faith and politics. Today, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, issued the following statement on this issue:
"Forty years ago, Democratic candidate John Kennedy gave a campaign address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy, a Catholic, sought to reassure these Protestant clergy that his faith would not undermine his commitment to church-state separation.
"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...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.'
"Kennedy's word rang true at the time and are equally compelling today.
"We celebrate the fact that a Jewish American has been added to a national presidential ticket. This reflects the American respect for religious pluralism and the full inclusion of religious minorities in our national life. It also honors a bedrock principle of our Constitution -- Article VI -- which prohibits any religious test for public office. In this country, individuals' religious or philosophical commitments cannot disqualify them from government positions.
"While the majority of Americans are religious, many of them get very nervous, and properly so, when candidates appear to place too much emphasis on their personal faith in the context of a political campaign.
"Yesterday, Sen. Lieberman opened his first campaign address with a prayer and a recitation from the Book of Chronicles. This was apparently an expression of his personal religious devotion, and I think most Americans saw it that way.
"However, as the campaign proceeds, many voters would be concerned if the senator -- or any other candidate -- continued to open his appearances with a prayer and a scripture reading. Americans are more interested in candidates' stands on the important issues of the day than their personal faith. Repeated reliance on personal statements of faith would be seen by many as exploitation of religion. Such manipulation would benefit neither the political process, nor religion itself.
"Unfortunately, this campaign has already been marred with inappropriate uses of religion. It was wrong for Vice President Al Gore to go to a New York church in February to receive the pulpit endorsement of the Rev. Floyd Flake. It was equally troubling when the Republican Convention beamed in the Rev. Herbert Lusk from his Philadelphia pulpit to endorse GOP candidate George W. Bush.
"It was a mistake for Gore aide Elaine Kamarck to insist that 'the Democratic Party is going to take back God this time.' It was just as wrong for Gov. Bush to proclaim 'Jesus Day' in Texas June 10.
"It's past time that all the candidates remember that this is a presidential campaign, not a holy war. This is a race for president, not preacher. The winner will swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the Bible.
"John Kennedy had it just right. This country was built on the separation of church and state. It has served us well, guaranteeing full religious freedom for people from many different faiths and those who have chosen no spiritual path at all. Candidates today would do well to reaffirm this principle, not ignore it for political gain."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.