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By Linda Boyd Coates, Published March 03 2012

The Forum Face Off: No church should run this nation

What a difference 50 years makes. Or does it?

In 1960, John F. Kennedy assured a group of Texas Baptist ministers that his Catholic faith would not drive his decision-making. Far from making the pastors “throw up,” as presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently proclaimed, Kennedy’s pledge that “my decisions on every public policy will be my own – as an American, a Democrat and a free man” helped ease the concerns of the Baptist ministers and the American public at large. Many at the time worried that, under our country’s first Catholic president, American public policy would be overly influenced by the Pope.

Fast-forward to our time: “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.” This 2008 statement by Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has a familiar ring to it. Uneasiness with leaders whose religion is perceived as different is nothing new.

Americans are also leery of leaders who appear to overemphasize their particular church’s teachings when determining public policy, for obvious reasons: America is comprised of citizens of all religious affiliations – and of none.

When Santorum said, “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives of our country,” I’m pretty sure he was talking about his church, the Catholic Church. I’m also pretty sure that most Americans would disagree with his statement. The Catholic Church – or any other particular religious body – certainly should not have direct involvement in the operation of the state.

This is not to say that individuals who hold public office do not consult their conscience or spiritual beliefs when weighing questions of public policy – far from it. Separation of church and state refers to institutions, not individuals. Clearly, a candidate’s stated religious beliefs can give insight into his or her character. However, we must hold dear the notion – enshrined in our Constitution – that there is “no religious test” for public office.

We as Americans have every right to be proud of our many historic “firsts.” But it must be remembered that every single one of them came as a result of tumultuous cultural struggle. Religion wove its way into the arguments – on both sides – of issues from slavery to women’s rights to gay marriage.

Even the election of our first black president had ugly religious undertones, with claims that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. Never mind that he is a Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ which is the denominational descendant of the Congregationalists – the church of the Pilgrims, John Adams, and the founding of Harvard University. Or, for that matter, never mind that in today’s America there are more Muslim American citizens than there are Episcopalians.

Yes, people of faith run for office. But as Americans of all faiths who cherish individual freedoms, we don’t want one particular church running the country.

Boyd Coates is a former Fargo city commissioner, current Fargo School Board member, and executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony.