October 14th, 2011
04:13 PM ET
As the election engine picks up steam, the GOP presidential candidates are prepping to have every detail of their lives publicized and scrutinized. Most recently, Mitt Romney’s faith has become a key issue among debaters: Supporters say to give the topic a rest, while some critics accuse him of not being a Christian and others have gone as far as to call Mormonism a cult.
However, Dr. Dewey Wallace, a professor who specializes in “Christianity and religion in America” at the George Washington University in Washington D.C., says the term “cult” is subjective.
“They even use the term ‘Cult’ for the Mormons, which is a tricky word to use,” says Wallace. “In my classes, I define a cult as ‘Someone else’s religion.’ No one ever invites you to ‘Join me in my cult on Sunday morning,’” Wallace adds with a laugh.
It’s important to note that Romney isn’t the first candidate to be criticized for his religious beliefs, nor will he be the last. But one might assume that because of separation of church and state, presidential religious belief shouldn’t be a political issue. As history tells us though, that’s just not the case.
Thomas Jefferson, credited by most Americans as the founder of the church vs. state ideology in American politics, was “accused of being an anti-Christian Deist,” says Wallace, which hindered his election campaign.
Jump ahead a few years (and by a few, we mean 60), where Honest Abe was condemned for not being a “regular enough” churchgoer, despite his ultimate election into office.
Fast forward another hundred years or so, where Wallace says that since the 1940s and ‘50s religious revival, U.S. presidents have catered more to a religious public than they even did before.
“Ronald Reagan became the darling of the evangelicals, and let me tell you something: He was one of our least church-going presidents. As a president, he went to church only about five or six times. I was here all the time and I counted them,” says the grey-haired professor with a smile. “The paper would report he had gone to church somewhere or other… [But] they loved him because he went down to Oklahoma and told them he was against evolution and teaching evolution in public schools… He did things they liked.”
Other presidents have simply ignored their religious traditions in favor of winning the presidency – Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were technically not allowed to take the presidential oath of office because of their Quaker beliefs but did it anyway.
Kennedy too, was questioned about his Catholic upbringing– some Americans were concerned his allegiance would be to the Pope in Rome, rather than to American citizenry. The Catholic candidate put many fears to rest, however, during a 1960 speech in Texas:
“Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” said Kennedy matter-of-factly. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
And while this year it may be a Mormon against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed (hat tip to Kennedy’s speech), many people think perhaps it’s time to give the religion debate a rest. Perhaps the religion of the president, both current and potential, isn’t important. And it might be going out on a limb here, but some people believe that perhaps there are more important issues the American public should be focused on.
And even though Kennedy’s speech is a little outdated, there are points he made that are still relevant today:
“[These are] far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign. The spread of communist influence, until it now festers only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power, the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms, and America with too many slums but too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space,” said Kennedy.
“These are the real issues which should decide this campaign, and they are not religious issues. For war, and hunger, and ignorance, and despair know no religious barrier.”
Some believe religion humanizes. Others say it detracts. Either way, religious conservatives and many Americans are putting a high value on it this election cycle. What do you think – do candidates’ religious beliefs matter?