Religion and politics: battling over Kerry’s Catholic credentials

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Like John F. Kennedy before him, John F. Kerry is facing a “religious issue” in his race for the presidency. But unlike the first JFK, Kerry’s problem isn’t that he’s Catholic — it’s that he may not be Catholic enough.

When Kennedy ran in 1960, he had to reassure voters about his religion. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy famously told a gathering of Protestant ministers. “I am the Democratic candidate for president who happens to be a Catholic.”

In the current campaign, Protestants aren’t raising the Catholic question — Catholics are. A number of bishops have provoked the controversy by instructing priests not to give Communion to pro-choice politicians (and everyone knows who they mean).

A pastoral letter from Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs goes even further, calling for the Eucharist to be denied not only to Catholic politicians who “stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia,” but also to any Catholic who would vote for them.

The actions of Sheridan and other like-minded bishops are sparking a heated debate within the Catholic Church. Sheridan would elevate issues like abortion and stem-cell research above all other concerns as a litmus test for Catholic voters.

Other bishops note that there is a range of public-policy issues related to Catholic moral teaching — the death penalty and the Iraq war, for example. Bush scores well in some areas, Kerry in others. That’s one reason many Catholic clergy refuse to deny Communion to Catholics based on how they vote.

What a difference 44 years makes.

In 1960, a Catholic candidate struggled to prove that a Catholic can be trusted with the presidency. In 2004, a born-again president seeks photo-ops with Pope John Paul II, while a Catholic candidate fends off questions about whether or not he’s a faithful Catholic.

Kerry defends himself by affirming his commitment to the Catholic Church — and then invoking the First Amendment “separation of church and state.”

What Kerry means by this isn’t entirely clear. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t require him to take public-policy positions contrary to his faith. Like any elected official, he’s free to vote his conscience as long as the voters keep him in office.

By “separation,” Kerry may be saying that he’s faithful to his church, but opposes attempts by church leaders to instruct him on how to vote. Or he may simply mean that he separates his personal views on abortion from his decisions about state actions concerning abortion.

In any case, the debate about Communion isn’t a First Amendment issue (except for the fact that the church has a First Amendment right to decide who does and doesn’t receive Communion). This is more of a family argument among Catholics about how far the church should go in disciplining congregants who vote in ways contrary to the teachings of the church.

But, as the bishops surely know, withholding Communion from a Catholic running for president has significant political ramifications. And it opens the church door to charges of partisanship.

In fact, Bishop Sheridan’s letter has already prompted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to call for an IRS investigation, charging that the pastoral letter has a “partisan political intent” designed to win votes for Republican candidates.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are hurriedly trying to remove the IRS barriers to church involvement in political campaigns. A tax bill currently before the House of Representatives has provisions watering down IRS rules that keep churches from endorsing or opposing candidates.

The fight over Kerry’s Catholic credentials — and the accompanying involvement of bishops in the political debate — has some Democrats worried. Once reliably Democratic, Catholic voters are now evenly divided between the two major parties. And come November, the large number of Catholic voters in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania could decide the election.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is so concerned about this that he released a survey earlier this month showing how often Democratic Senators support the position of the Catholic bishops. At the top of the list? John Kerry at more than 60%.

In some ways, the argument about Kerry’s faith is a sign of progress. After all, today the “Catholic” label is more of an asset than a barrier in presidential politics.

But in other ways, these efforts to punish Catholics for their vote risk politicizing the Catholic Church — and represent a mixing of religion and politics that could divide Catholics and the nation.

Maybe it’s time for Catholics — and all Americans — to recall what John F. Kennedy told those Protestant ministers 44 years ago:

“I believe 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.”

Amen to that.