John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated eleven years, four months, and one day before I was born, but I miss him. There are issues today where his voice is needed even more than it was needed in 1960. But Kennedy is dead and buried, but the issues of religion he had to confront are not. And his voice needs to be heard, because Kennedy was firm in his stand, he was eloquent in the way he expressed it, and he was right.
Yesterday, Mitt Romney gave a speech on religion that many have compared to Kennedy's. And it's not an entirely unreasonable comparison. Like Kennedy, Romney gave his address in response to difficulties that he faces because he is a member of a minority religion. Like Kennedy, Romney expressed is stand firmly. Like Kennedy, Romney was eloquent and well spoken. But he was wrong:
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
Romney is wrong. Freedom certainly does not require religion. As the Washington Post pointed out today, Democracy remains alive and well in Europe today, even if the cathedrals there are increasingly empty. The irreligious are not, by and large, advocates for tyranny and slavery any more than the vast bulk of the religious are. I do not endorse a return to nobility, royalty, and the divine right of kings if I fail to attend church on Sunday, or temple on Saturday, or Mosque on Friday. No, freedom does not require religion. If anything freedom - especially freedom of religion - requires secularism.
This is where I really miss Kennedy, because this is the point that Kennedy made so well in his 1960 speech on religion:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been -- and may someday be again -- a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.
True religious freedom is possible only if there is true separation of church and state. All churches are equally protected only if the government is absolutely neutral toward all churches. As soon as one belief is favored over the others, or one philosophy is belittled while no others are, we create a situation that puts all beliefs at risk. Your faith might be the favored majority view today, but it might not be tomorrow.
Romney believes that there should be a right for the government to "acknowledge God":
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.
If the government is free to acknowledge God, what God gets acknowledged?
Do we acknowledge the spirits of nature that pagans believe in, or the lares and penates of Imperial Roman households? Do we acknowledge Buddha, or Krishna, or the divinity of the Reverend Moon, or Allah?
Do we acknowledge only one of the Trinity, or all three?
Do we acknowledge the God that provided comfort to Martin Luther King in his Birmingham jail cell, or the God of Pat Robertson who is willing to wreck natural disasters upon a Pennsylvania town because they voted for the wrong school board? I know those two are not the same.
Do we just throw up our hands and say that we're just acknowledging God in a vague, meaningless, non-denominational, non-confrontational sense, and as long as everyone agrees that the atheists are going to hell it's all good?
There can be no acknowledgment of god by the government because it is quite simply not possible for the government to do so without leaving some citizens out. No American should be sent a message that their beliefs or lack of beliefs makes them any more or less of a favored member of society. Period. If we can do that, we will protect religious freedom for all. If we cannot, we all risk losing it.