November 2007 Church & State | Editorial

Why JFK Was Right

What’s your favorite Bible verse?

Maybe you have one, maybe you don’t. Maybe your favorite inspirational passage comes from some other scripture or is from a secular source.

If you were asked that question at a house of worship, it would not seem strange. What does seem strange is hearing it asked by television journalist Tim Russert during a presidential debate.

Russert’s question –; which he asked during a gathering of Democratic candidates Sept. 26 –; was an iconic moment in a presidential race where religion has played a more inappropriate role than any in recent memory.

We are choosing a president, not a national pastor. You’d never know that to listen to many in the media. They seem obsessed with playing “gotcha” games over Bible verses and demanding that the hopefuls explain how their faith guides their personal lives.

We’ve actually lost ground since 1960, when John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech in which he explained why he would not base policy on the tenets of his church. In a country that includes people of many different faiths and none, Kennedy said it’s simply inappropriate to base public policy on the narrow theological dictates championed by some.

It’s especially distressing to see our country go down this road this year. We face many compelling issues: health care, the war in Iraq, the strength of Social Security and international terrorism are just a few.

The next president will have to make some hard choices. He or she may certainly find solace in holy books while those decisions are made. But in a diverse society, government can’t be based on religious law.

Religious writings certainly have their value for many people, but it is unlikely they have much to say about balancing the budget or how best to deal with the subprime mortgage crisis.

Instead of asking about Bible verses, Russert and his fellow pundits would do better to pose this question, “In 1960, John F. Kennedy said, ‘I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish…where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials….’ Do you agree?”

 By the way, we wish one of the candidates had given Russert one particular Bible verse that might be especially appropriate at the present time. It is Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”