Tim Rutten: Old-time religion, today’s politics

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In the midst of a hotly contested presidential election a little more than half a century ago, John Kennedy went to Houston to give the most important speech of his campaign.

No Catholic ever had been elected to the White House, and the young Massachusetts senator chose a Protestant audience deep in the Bible belt — the Greater Houston Ministerial Assn. — as the venue in which to address the so-called religious issue. This is the heart of the case he put to the association and the nation:

“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 parishioners 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.... I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”


If, as seems increasingly likely, Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumps into the current race for the Republican presidential nomination, Houston also will be the scene of a campaign event that demonstrates just how far we’ve descended from that day Kennedy spoke, and what the consequences of that descent are. Perry has summoned the country’s governors to join him on Aug. 6 in a national day of prayer and fasting sponsored by a fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant ministry. Perry, who urges participants to bring a Bible, acknowledges that the event, which is called The Response, is an overtly Christian occasion, and on its website, he writes that America’s hope “lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”

In a written statement, Perry argues: “Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel.”

When it comes to allies, Perry isn’t a bit shy about cultivating some of the more sinister right-wing culture warriors. His event’s website formally endorses the statement of faith of the Rev. Don Wildmon’s American Family Assn., which has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its strident anti-gay bigotry. In the late 1980s Wildmon, who is one of this event’s personal sponsors, was denounced as an anti-Semite by the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Atlanta office of the Anti-Defamation League after he alleged that Jews controlled the film and television industries and consciously laced movies and TV programs with anti-Christian messages.

Perry is hardly the only GOP candidate to troll for votes in these murky waters. Virtually the entire Republican field went to Washington last weekend to court attendees at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Conference. Sarah Palin, who has written that Kennedy was wrong in his speech, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) both play up their evangelical connections. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum wears his conservative Catholicism so prominently on his sleeve that you’d think he was running for archbishop.

This is where all the recent years’ vague talk of “once again making a place for God in the public square” and a historical insistence that America was founded as a Christian nation have brought us. Public religiosity must inevitably assume a sectarian character because belief is such a necessarily particular experience. In a society as diverse as ours, that is, as John Kennedy argued, a disaster:

“This year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed; in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you, until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”