Video: Religion in politics

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updated 6/16/2004 10:50:25 PM ET 2004-06-17T02:50:25

In the modern era of presidential politics, John F. Kennedy is considered a trail blazer. Kennedy was a Catholic and in 1960, there were fears he might be beholden to the Vatican.

Two months before election day, he addressed the issue head on in Houston, Texas, telling ministers the separation of Church and State was "absolute." He said, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance to what my conscious tells me to be in the national interest without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”

But John Kerry, also Catholic, the issue for some isn’t that the former altar boy is too religious… but rather, that he isn’t religious enough. John Kerry supports abortion rights and stem cell research, and has been citing Kennedy to fend off sharp criticism from the clergy.

Last Tuesday, he said “I’m running to uphold the constitution of our country which has a strict separation of the affairs of Church and state, and that’s what we lived by with President Kennedy and that’s what we’ve lived by for over 228 years, that’s what I will live by.”

As for President Bush, his supporters see an opportunity: A recent magazine poll found that 56 percent of voters believe America is a religious nation and that religious values should guide political leaders.

Before September 11, the president kept his evangelical Christian beliefs largely to himself, talking about it usually in the context of kicking alcoholism. But after the terrorist attacks, those close to Mr. Bush says he discovered his life’s mission. He firmly placed America on the side of good. Still for every voter who likes the way President Bush talks about his faith, the polls indicate there is another voter who would prefer a president kept it private.

Last weekend, Ron Reagan talking about his dad at the funeral service, addressed the issue: “He never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.”

The Time Magazine poll found that voters who consider themselves very religious prefer Bush over Kerry 59 to 35 percent. Voters not religious, prefer Kerry over Bush 69 to 22 percent.

And complicating matters, analysts say that on both sides of the religious divide, the number of extremists is growing. It means President Bush and John Kerry have to be careful as they reach for the middle… while counting their core supporters as a matter of faith.

David Shuster is MSNBC's Hardball correspondent. Hardball airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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