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Pat Robertson's politics of the religious pulpit

JOHN KENNEDY worried a lot of people because they thought he would bring the Pope into the White House. He didn't. Now the Rev. Pat Robertson worries a lot of people because they think he would bring a religious leader into the presidency -- something they feel our Founding Fathers didn't have in mind when they framed our Constitution. Mr. Robertson may yet prove himself able to separate himself from his views on religion. His academic credentials seem sufficient. And he probably has a feel for governing: His father was a United States senator.

But Robertson's early utterings suggest that he's going to stress religion -- his religious views -- if he runs. He is saying that he's moving toward the presidency as part of ``God's plan.'' And he suggests that there is divine sanction for his political positions.

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This may not be a zealot. But it sounds like a religious leader who will be representative of evangelical ``born again'' Christians -- and not all of them -- should he make it to the presidency. At the same time, if he would go on to link his kind of religion to his decisionmaking and appointments, a large number of people would feel unrepresented -- even excluded.

Yes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson could pose that same problem. But Mr. Jackson goes out of his way -- as he did the other morning over breakfast -- to make it clear that he thinks his own piety is a very private element in his life, something that would not openly be a part of his candidacy or his presidency, if it came to that.

He thinks his religion is relevant to ``broad positions and views,'' such as being compassionate to the poor and oppressed. But he says he would never feel that he had any special pipeline to God that enabled him to know and proclaim God's will on such things as legislative programs and specific issues.

Maybe Robertson along the way will take a similar position. But as he reaches out for what he calls God's will as to whether he should run, he is sounding like something new on the American scene: a TV preacher who would become a presidential preacher if elected to the highest office in the land. That is a lot more than many Americans would feel comfortable with. One might just guess that most Americans would much prefer having their own minister at the pulpit -- and not at the nation's helm.

Robertson has somehow been told by God that if 3 million people sign a petition saying they want him to run for president, he should and will comply. It sounded to us as though Robertson was announcing for the presidency, assured that his people would answer with a resounding ``Go, Pat, Go!''

Robertson's still-tentative presidential campaign is gaining ground fast at the grass-roots level. Some other fundamentalist leaders are moving in his direction: the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart for one and Dr. Bob Grant of Christian Voice for another.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is still with George Bush. But should Robertson move into contention, Mr. Falwell's allegiance for Bush could shift to Robertson.

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How many fundamentalist Christians are there in the United States? When Jimmy Carter was running the first time, in 1976, a study showed that upward of 50 percent of the voters could be included in that category. At the time, Mr. Carter had the bulk of fundamentalists in his camp. In 1980 Ronald Reagan drew many of these votes to his side. And, again, in 1984, Reagan had the ``fundamentalist'' vote.

So it is clear that Pat Robertson could become a formidable candidate for the nomination and the presidency. He could win it all. Or, failing that, he could do well in enough primaries, particularly in the South, to be assured of enough delegates to have much to say in the selection of the GOP nominee.

But Robertson possesses a high potential for divisiveness -- in the Republican Party and among the American people. A religious leader as a candidate would be seen by many people as representative of only a segment of the people, and therefore not at all democratic.

Those in other religions or with other beliefs might feel threatened by having Robertson run the country.

This brings us back to 1960, when Mr. Kennedy's candidacy aroused so much emotional apprehension. Are we in for another such campaign -- one in which the prime argument will be over a candidate's religious views and one that will thus tend to detract from what the chief public debate should be: on how global peace may be achieved and how the government and the country can be run more effectively and efficiently?

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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