.- A group of nearly 40 Catholic lay individuals has issued a statement urging “harmony and understanding among all faiths” in the upcoming U.S. presidential election and “rejecting bigoted questions and comments about personal religious beliefs.”
The statement, which was signed by “Catholic citizens of different political persuasions,” called for the avoidance of “all inclinations to raise the issue of personal religious affiliation.”
It asked that “civility be maintained in the public discourse.”
Thomas P. Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, released the statement at a Nov. 2 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
A press release announcing the event said that the individuals who signed the statement “are concerned about the manner in which religion is surfacing in the current political public discourse.”
It explained that the signatories fear “signs of a regression back to the use of religious bias when discussing candidates for political office.”
The statement was issued in response to a comment made in October by Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Jeffress endorsed Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. and called Mormonism, the faith of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, “a cult.”
Adding to the controversy, Rev. Jeffress was quoted last year as saying that the Roman Catholic Church was the outgrowth of a “corruption” which he called “Babylonian mystery.”
“Much of what you see in the Catholic Church today doesn’t come from God’s word,” he said. “It comes from that cult-like pagan religion. Isn’t that the genius of Satan?”
Once Jeffress’comments were brought to Gov. Perry’s attention he disassociated himself from the pastor.
The signers of the call for civility noted that the U.S. has a “history of anti-Catholic bias,” citing the 1928 presidential election in which “religious bigotry” was exhibited against Catholic candidate Al Smith.
Smith’s great grandson is among the signatories of the statement.
Although progress has been made, Melady explained that Jeffress’ comments have raised concerns that religious bigotry may flare up again in the upcoming election.
The statement lamented “the unfortunate prospect that the discussion of a man’s particular religious belief may become a major divisive political issue.”
It acknowledged “that a candidate’s character, moral beliefs, and reputation for integrity should be subject to public review,” but denounced attempts to allow “the question of a candidate’s religion to be subject to public ridicule.”
At the Wednesday press conference, Melady emphasized the need to “focus on the issues.” He called for a “discussion conducted civilly” with “respect for the other point of view.”
Melady said that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee on religious liberty would receive a copy of the statement.
Among those who signed the statement were Douglas Kmiec, former U.S. ambassador to Malta, and Fred Rotondaro, chair of the left-leaning group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Other signatories included Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America; Owen Smith, chairman of the board of trustees at the Institute of World Politics; and Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.