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Diane Mufson: Ryan should heed JFK's message on religion

Oct. 24, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Those of us of a certain age remember John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign well. It was a pivotal point in American politics, largely because the question, "Can a Catholic be elected president of the United States?" was answered affirmatively.

Until then, the American public had heard comments such as "If a Catholic is elected, we'll be controlled by Rome." It took direct statements about his religion and campaigning in West Virginia, a state with a small Catholic population, to convince voters that while JFK'S religion was vital to him personally, he had no intention of imposing his religious views on the nation.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is too young to have any memory of President Kennedy's campaign, needs to learn from JFK's message on religion and governing of our nation.

President Kennedy's 1960 landmark speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association made it clear that, if elected president, his decisions for this country would not be based on his church's doctrine.

President Kennedy addressed his views clearly, saying, "It is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in -- for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in."

"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...." He also said, " I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

JFK recognized that his comments were important for the nation's future, as future American presidents could have varying religious affiliations.

Debate moderator Martha Raddatz questioned the vice presidential candidates, Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden, both of whom are Catholic, as to how their religion has shaped their views on abortion.

Congressman Ryan's statements are a cause for concern because they indicate that he will be unable to detach his personal religious views from decisions that will affect the nation.

Congressman Ryan responded that, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith." He made it clear that if elected on the ticket with former Governor Romney, he would oppose abortions with the "exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother." But who would determine if these are "legitimate" rapes, as brought to light a few months ago by the poorly informed U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., or what "saving the life of a mother" really means?

On the other hand, Vice President Biden indicated that as a Catholic he accepts his church's doctrine regarding abortion, but refuses to "impose that on others." He said, "I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that -- women they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor."

President Kennedy paved the way for Americans to be comfortable selecting presidential candidates other than those from the majority Protestant religions. Being a Mormon is no longer a prime issue in Governor Romney's candidacy, but then again no one is expecting him to bring back prohibition because his religion does not approve of imbibing alcohol.

Religion is important to most people in the United States, but it should be a personal choice. JFK has an important message for Congressman Ryan.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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