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Sarah Palin is wrong about John F. Kennedy, religion and politics

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Several hundred people lined up Tuesday night to have former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sign her new book. She kicked off her national book tour at a store in north Phoenix.

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By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
Friday, December 3, 2010; 6:00 PM

Sarah Palin has found a new opponent to debate: John F. Kennedy.

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In her new book, "America by Heart," Palin objects to my uncle's famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he challenged the ministers - and the country - to judge him, a Catholic presidential candidate, by his views rather than his faith. "Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president," Kennedy said. "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."

Palin writes that when she was growing up, she was taught that Kennedy's speech had "succeeded in the best possible way: It reconciled public service and religion without compromising either." Now, however, she says she has revisited the speech and changed her mind. She finds it "defensive . . . in tone and content" and is upset that Kennedy, rather than presenting a reconciliation of his private faith and his public role, had instead offered an "unequivocal divorce of the two."

Palin's argument seems to challenge a great American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, stipulating that there be no religious test for public office. A careful reading of her book leads me to conclude that Palin wishes for precisely such a test. And she seems to think that she, and those who think like her, are qualified to judge who would pass and who would not.

If there is no religious test, then there is no need for a candidate's religious affiliation to be "reconciled." My uncle urged that religion be private, removed from politics, because he feared that making faith an arena for public contention would lead American politics into ill-disguised religious warfare, with candidates tempted to use faith to manipulate voters and demean their opponents.

Kennedy cited Thomas Jefferson to argue that, as part of the American tradition, it was essential to keep any semblance of a religious test out of the political realm. Best to judge candidates on their public records, their positions on war and peace, jobs, poverty, and health care. No one, Kennedy pointed out, asked those who died at the Alamo which church they belonged to.

But Palin insists on evaluating and acting as an authority on candidates' faith. She faults Kennedy for not "telling the country how his faith had enriched him." With that line, she proceeds down a path fraught with danger - precisely the path my uncle warned against when he said that a president's religious views should be "neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

After all, a candidate's faith will matter most to those who believe that they have the right to serve as arbiters of that faith. Is it worthy? Is it deep? Is it reflected in a certain ideology?

Palin further criticizes Kennedy because, "rather than spelling out how faith groups had provided life-changing services and education to millions of Americans, he repeatedly objected to any government assistance to religious schools." She does not seem to appreciate that Kennedy was courageous in arguing that government funds should not be used in parochial schools, despite the temptation to please his constituents. Many Catholics would have liked the money. But he wisely thought that the use of public dollars in places where nuns explicitly proselytized would be unconstitutional. Tax money should not be used to persuade someone to join a religion.

As a contrast to Kennedy's speech, Palin cites former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's remarks during the 2008 Republican primary campaign, in which he spoke publicly of "how my own faith would inform my presidency, if I were elected." After paying lip service to the separation of church and state, Romney condemned unnamed enemies "intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism."

"There is one fundamental question about which I am often asked," Romney said. "What do I believe about Jesus Christ?" Romney, of course, is a Mormon. He answered the question, proclaiming that "Jesus Christ is the son of God."

Palin praises Romney for delivering a "thoughtful speech that eloquently and correctly described the role of faith in American public life." But if there should be no religious test in politics, then why should a candidate feel compelled to respond to misplaced questions about his belief in Jesus?


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