View From Lodi, CA: Joe On Church And State
October 22, 2004, 05:00 AM
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When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, my devout Roman Catholic grandmother was thrilled.

According to her, "If Kennedy is elected, it will end arguments that Catholics can't be president because they would take directions from the Pope."

Kennedy didn't disappoint my grandmother. Two months before the general election, Kennedy addressed a group of Southern Baptist ministers who shared the nation's concern about the prospect of a Roman Catholic president.

Kennedy, supporting the separation of church and state, told the ministers that in America, "no Catholic prelate would tell a Catholic president how to act. And no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."  

Although I was happy that Kennedy won, shortly after his inauguration I walked away from Catholicism forever.

Giving up my faith was hard. In my youth, I had been an altar boy. I routinely assisted at the 6:00 A.M. Mass so that I could serve daily and still get to school on time.

When I was a teenager, I attended a boarding school that had mandatory Sunday chapel. Nevertheless, I woke up early, took a bus to attend Mass and returned to the campus in time to participate in the non-denominational services.

But as I grew older, I could not reconcile the intrusive demands that the church made on the daily lives of its faithful with its claim that it is all loving.

I have never doubted my decision nor have I ever looked back.

I don't need any reaffirmation that leaving the church was the right decision for me. But Colorado Archbishop Charles C. Chaput represents a prime example of Catholic interference in private matters.

Archbishop Chaput's recent statement that a vote for pro-choice Roman Catholic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is "cooperating with evil" and "a sin" that would require confession is a gross intrusion on individual rights.

Since February, Kerry has been under attack by his own church. Prior to the Missouri primary, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said that were Kerry to stand in his Communion line, he would bless him but deny him the sacrament. Other bishops soon joined the anti-Kerry chorus.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, a top Vatican official in Rome, said that politicians like Kerry who support abortion rights are "not fit" to receive the Eucharist.

This week, the debate ratcheted up. De Fide, a conservative Catholic group, claiming that it acted at the request of the Vatican, charged Kerry with heresy and called for his excommunication.

But the Catholic News Service, speaking officially, denied involvement. An unnamed Vatican official added that Kerry "is not a heretic."

How the Roman Catholic Church, still in the midst of pedophile sex scandals involving hundreds of ruined lives, the resignations of dozens of priests and pay-offs of tens of millions of dollars, can claim high moral ground is a mystery.

But since Archbishop Chuput has thrown down the gauntlet, I have a question for him:

  • If I oppose Senator Kerry's pro-choice position but vote for him because I prefer his stance on other domestic and global issues, would I still need to confess?

The Roman Catholic Church, acting with the tacit approval of the Bush administration, is working overtime to eliminate the separation of church and state.

In his essay, "Holy War," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described how earlier presidents, following the founding father's democratic concept, fought to preserve church and state separation.

Two examples:

  • Andrew Jackson, refusing clergy efforts to proclaim a national day of fasting to combat a cholera epidemic, said that to do so might "disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the general government."

  • During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln refused to back an amendment that proposed inserting "Almighty God" and "the Lord Jesus Christ" into the Constitution.

Earlier I described how Kennedy vigorously defended the separation of church and state to the Southern Baptist ministers.

Compare Bush to Kennedy. In an interview with the Public Broadcasting System, Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention, stated that the Bush White House frequently calls him to ask: "How does your group feel about this?"

Said Land, "…There's no question this is the most receptive White House to our concerns and to our perspective of any White House that I've dealt with, and I've dealt with every White House from Reagan on."   

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and scores of other presidents understood the wisdom of keeping church and state apart.

Bush does not.

All of our past presidents have professed to believe in God. And while President Bush may be a man of great faith, he is the first to openly use religion as a tool to gain votes.

Bush should heed the words of 20th president James Garfield. Said Garfield more than a century ago:

 "I would rather be defeated than make capital out of my religion."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.