WHEN John F. Kennedy ran for president way back in 1960, one of the biggest obstacles he faced was his religion: He was a Roman Catholic, and no Catholic had ever been elected president of the United States.
At one point during his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kennedy decided that he needed to address the religious issue, and he did so by pledging that if elected he would owe his allegiance to the Constitution and the American people, not to the Catholic Church and the pope.
The voters took Kennedy at his word, and he went on to win the White House in a close election over Richard Nixon. Kennedy's religion was never an issue during his presidency; he adhered to his promise that the church would not be allowed to meddle in the secular business of America.
So. If a Catholic president elected nearly 40 years ago took no marching orders from the pope, why is the Baptist governor of Missouri giving the pontiff veto power over capital punishment in 1999?
During a visit to St. Louis last week, Pope John Paul II urged Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare the life of a triple murderer who was scheduled for execution in February. Carnahan complied, commuting the killer's death sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole.
"I continue to support capital punishment," Mr. Carnahan said after granting the reprieve to longtime Death Row resident Darrell Mease, "but after careful consideration of [the pope's] direct and personal appeal and because of a deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all he represents, I decided last night to grant his request."
The pope had preached against capital punishment last week during a public Mass at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, and he later asked Mr. Carnahan to spare Mease's life. Mease's execution date had been postponed until Feb. 10, apparently to avoid putting him to death while the pope was in Missouri.
Other than the pope's plea for mercy, there was no reason for Mr. Carnahan to commute Mease's death sentence. There was no question that Mease was guilty of the 1988 murders of a fellow drug dealer and the dealer's wife and grandson. Mease's partisans weren't even claiming that he had undergone a Death Row religious conversion in the manner of the late Karla Faye Tucker.
Remember Tucker, the Texas pickax killer? The pope wanted Gov. George W. Bush to rescue her from the lethal needle, but Mr. Bush adhered to a ruling by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The Texas governor evidently has a better understanding than the Missouri governor of the distinction between religion and government.
Mr. Carnahan, a Democrat who plans to run for the U.S. Senate next year, would have been better advised to demonstrate his reverence for the pope by kissing the pontiff's ring rather than overruling a jury of Missouri residents and the various courts that have rejected Mease's appeals over the years.
The pope is a great and godly man, an inspiration to Catholics and non-Catholics all around the world. No one will ever catch me saying otherwise.
The pope and religious leaders of all faiths are entitled to express themselves, in any forum they might choose.
But no president or governor, no official at any level of government in America, should make decisions based on the desires or dictates of any church. That is the law of the land.
Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Pub Date: 2/02/99