There is a Time to Grieve: John Harvie Knight 1960-2006.

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 February 2007 0 Comments
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"As the presidential campaign begins to take shape, do you think it is

appropriate and or important for the candidates to express their personal

religious views and to use religious rhetoric? Why?"


It is inevitable that if politicians think it will win votes, they will talk

about their religious views. It is certainly now in vogue to do so. I

recall that in 1980 all three candidates Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and

John Anderson claimed to be "born again Christians." When all make the

claim credibility becomes the issue. No one has ever doubted the

authenticity of President Carter's religious commitment, but in 1980 the

"religious vote" went to Ronald Reagan. That was unusual especially in that

it must be noted that if Mr. Reagan were a "born again Christian," that fact

did not seem to require either that he attend a church with some regularity

or that he support a church with regular contributions. To show the

complexity of this issue we observe that one of the most deeply spiritual

presidents we have ever had, Abraham Lincoln, was known not to be a church

attendee at all. In 1952 Unitarian Adlai Stevenson ran against unbaptized

Dwight Eisenhower and the issue of religion never came up in the campaign.

It needs to be stated that both later became quite proper Presbyterians. It

was the Roman Catholicism of John F. Kennedy in 1960 that is given credit

for making religion so overt an issue in national politics. America had

rejected the only other Roman Catholic candidate who had been a major party

nominee, Alfred E. Smith of New York in 1928. I am certain that Smith's

Roman Catholicism was an issue in his defeat though it is hard to say that

it was the determinative issue in that election. Senator Kennedy defused a

potential anti-Catholic vote in 1960, we recall, by saying that he would not

allow his religion to determine his behavior as president. That seemed to

be a satisfactory place for a Roman Catholic candidate to stand in 1960. In

1984, however, when Roman Catholic Geraldine Ferraro was a vice presidential

nominee and in 2004 when Roman Catholic John Kerry was a presidential

nominee, the Kennedy stance was judged to be inappropriate by Roman Catholic

Bishops who insisted that the moral stands of their church must be the

policy of American Catholic politicians - or the withholding of communion

was threatened.

I want my presidents to have a clear sense of who they are, including a

sense of what they believe and how they live out that belief. I also want

every president to know that this is a multi-faith nation and our leader

must be respectful of all religious traditions and unwilling to impose any

particular religious viewpoint upon the whole body politic. I trace the

beginning of the decline in popularity of the present incumbent to his

attempt, supported by Senator Bill Frist and Representative Tom DeLay, to

make conservative Christian end of life issues in the Terri Schiavo case, a

political cause designed to win the support of his religious base. In a

similar manner President Bush's use of such things as the teaching of

"Intelligent Design" as an alternative to evolution and his making

homosexuality a political issue, both in response to his presumed religious

values and certainly to gain support from right wing religious voters, was

appalling to me.

There is a fine line between religious devotion and the use of religion

in the public arena to gain election. I want candidates for the presidency

to know how to walk that line.

John Shelby Spong




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