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By Tom Cushing

Religion and Politics, Part 1 (uh-oh)

Uploaded: Aug 17, 2011

America is a nation founded in major part by refugees to whom religious expression was important enough to risk the perils of an ocean voyage and brave the challenges of frontier life. Freedom of religion is enshrined in two clauses of the First Amendment, which promote both its free exercise and protect against the establishment of any particular belief system as a state religion. So it is unsurprising that religion continues to play a major role in American life, including politics.

With some trepidation, I'd like to consider with you three aspects of religion in politics, one each over the next three blog entries: first, religion and the candidate, then religion and domestic policies, and finally religion in a global diplomacy context. I'm guessing that the views of this readership vary across a broad spectrum – and I'm also hoping they can be expressed here in a reasonable manner that befits the lofty topic (I would add "praying," too, but I suspect the Deity has better things to do).

My own awareness of religion-and-the-candidate dates from the 1960 presidential campaign (yeah, yeah – you kids get off my lawn), in which JFK's Catholicism was a front-and-center issue. So deep was the concern that he took the initiative and entered a Lion's Den of Texas clergymen. In a masterful speech (written by Ted Sorensen, a Unitarian by faith), he declared " I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; ? and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

This is the kind of America I believe in, and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a 'divided loyalty?'"

JFK's point was that his religion would not interfere with his judgment of those policies he'd advocate as good for the general populace. Similarly, candidate Obama was whispered to be a secret Muslim, and also faced a worry in some quarters over caustic views espoused by the minister of his Chicago church. Did then-Senator Obama's attendance at that church suggest that he subscribed to his preacher's theology?

Current GOP candidates Romney and Huntsman are Mormons, and subject to similar suspicions – a recent poll indicated that a quarter of Republicans would not vote for a member of the LDS church, on that basis. That's a big chunk of the party base that is apparently closed to their campaigns.

Those instances of candidates on the defensive vary dramatically from the approaches of other Presidential aspirants. Candidates Bachmann and Perry are playing offense with their evangelical religious beliefs – they wear their faith on their sleeves. Governor Perry recently led a prayer service for America in a Houston football stadium (thus combining two defining elements of Texas life), and Representative Bachmann routinely declares to the faithful that her faith will inform her Presidency in fundamental ways.

Now, all candidates have values (let's assume), and those principles influence their policies. How important are those candidates' religions as markers of their policy preferences? Do you think their faith Really makes a difference at "crunch time?" Would you vote for, or against anyone primarily on the basis of his-or-her stated religion? Would it matter if that religion was Buddhist, or Muslim -- or Atheist? Are you comfortable with a candidate founding her/his campaign appeal significantly on Faith?

'Tis the presidential campaign season, already -- I invite your thoughts on these subjects.