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Essay: Religion, Republicans and Presidential Politics

Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr says science, religion and politics often don’t mix.

"I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic.”

That was John F. Kennedy’s direct approach to the political controversy regarding his religion. The quote is from his address in September 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a lions’ den of fundamentalist Protestants.

By contrast, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has been less effective in dealing with concerns about religion in politics. In London on a trade mission - and also to establish foreign policy credentials - he was asked by a reporter about his views on evolution.

Walker stated he was “going to punt on that one… That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involve in…”

Shortly thereafter, however, Walker issued a smooth statement that religion and science go hand in hand. No doubt this polished prose reflected the collective efforts of the highly paid spin meisters, media mavens and varied other operators who surround any presidential contender who appears to be gaining national traction.

The Wisconsin governor provides the latest in what has over time become a series of unfortunate Republican candidate encounters with the often biting and brutal British media. At the start of February, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, touring Britain to establish his foreign policy credentials, got into similar difficulty.

When asked by a reporter about vaccinating children, Christie emphasized that should be voluntary. The statement drew immediate media fire in part because of the recent growth in measles cases in the U.S. Later, Christie’s office clarified that the governor of course supports vaccination.

The British press also dogged Republicans in 2012. A visit to Britain by Republican candidate Mitt Romney was launched in the media by an unnamed adviser who praised “Anglo-Saxon heritage” in an off-the-record interview with a British newspaper. There is in fact a lot to praise about that heritage, which has given us the common law tradition and representative government.

However, the staffer instead provided media and political critics with an opportunity to attack Romney’s camp for elitism, insensitivity and even racism. That was unfair, but who said political campaigns are fair?

The Walker and Christie missteps draw attention to the role of the religious right, which includes zealots who reject both evolution and science more generally. British elitists may enjoy sneering at such American sentiments, but in fact long-term growth in religious tolerance characterizes both societies.

The repressions by European state churches, and violence spawned by religious controversies, directly inspired American revolutionaries to impose a strict wall between church and state. Concern that the Vatican might try to interfere in U.S. government, along with old-fashioned religious bigotry, created the political challenge for candidate Kennedy.

After JFK won, Catholic controversy literally disappeared from U.S. national politics. Catholics since have been nominated without facing hostility regarding their religion, including both the vice presidential nominees in 2012 – Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

The religious right influences the Republican Party but so do a wide range of other concerns among party activists and voters. The contemporary theme of “intelligent design” is one way to reconcile religion and science. The lesson of the recent flaps is that a presidential candidate should address such issues head on, and not duck.

JFK is also associated with the statement that “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Peter Benenson, British founder of Amnesty International, is credited with publicly using the phrase earlier, but the origins are essentially Biblical.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is Professor of Political Economy and World Business and the Director of the A.W. Claussen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).