Editor's note: Pilgrims and separatists came to the New World for religious freedom. Being free to worship who and how one chooses is in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Yet in 1960, John F. Kennedy had to respond to fears that as a Catholic, he might let the Vatican influence U.S. policy. Forty-seven years later, Mitt Romney finds himself in the same position as he explains being a Mormon.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint says Americans are afraid of the unknown.
(CNN) -- CNN asked renowned psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint why religion remains an issue for presidential candidates despite the nation's promise of spiritual freedom.
Poussaint, the director of the media center of the Judge Baker Children's Center at Harvard University, is an expert on America's race relations, prejudice and diversity issues. His edited responses are below:
CNN: The United States boasts that it's the land of the free and a great melting pot where all are created equal. So why does [Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney have to give this speech in 2007?
Poussaint: Well, for the same reason that we had slavery for 250 years. We didn't always live in our real lives by what we said in the Constitution. The people who wrote the Constitution were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And we tend to go with what we feel safe with and we are more afraid of the unknown. All of our presidents except Kennedy were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants because people wanted to vote into power people who were like them. And I am talking white people, because until 1966, black people were disenfranchised. They wanted to vote into power people who were like them to be sure to maintain power and not have someone come in with ideas different from theirs on how the country should work. Can you imagine what would happen if there was a Buddhist up there running for president? Or a Muslim?
I think frequently in the Unites States, there has been a lot of lip service about freedoms. It is one of the phenomena of human beings. It was lip service when they talked about equality. It was lip service after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even today the lip service continues with saying we believe in freedom and equality, yet discrimination continues against religion, against ethnic groups, against women.
CNN: Our money says "In God we trust" -- not Allah, not Mohammed, not Jehovah, not Buddha. Does that declare that the United States is a land of Protestants?
Poussaint: We have notions that God watches over the United States, not Allah and not Jehovah. We are a land of Protestants and Catholics and all the different denominations of that like Jehovah's Witnesses. We have never had a Jewish president despite all of the successes of Jews on every level.
CNN: Is it just religion that still matters in 2008? Does race still matter? Should [Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen.] Barack Obama be giving a speech explaining his bi-racial background?
Poussaint: You can be sure that religion matters and race still matters very, very much. And that has been an issue for Obama as people try to feel him out. Black people are saying, "Is he black enough?" And then you have whites saying that he's not really an African-American. He's multiracial. I don't think Obama needs to explain anything. I think Obama should just go out there and let people see him as a strong candidate and not get mired down in trying to prove some kind of racial identity issue.
CNN: The country is 231 years old. The Constitution promises equality where these issues don't matter. How long is it going to take and what will it take so that candidates will not have to explain whatever makes them different?
Poussaint: I don't know how long it will take, but I am telling you that in 50 years from now, if you had a Muslim, they would be in for a lot of prejudice based on a feeling that there is a threat to the fundamental nature of the country. People have referred to the United States as a Christian nation. And I think an agnostic or someone who didn't proclaim some higher being, like God, would have a tough time getting elected to the presidency because we associate religion with having moral character. If you are an atheist or an agnostic, people would not trust that you had strong moral character or strong moral guidance.
CNN: In 1960, [then-presidential candidate John F.] Kennedy said that "there are real issues which should decide this campaign. War, hunger, ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." Are there issues we should be focusing on other than religion?
Poussaint: I think people should be judging Romney for what he stands for and what his platform is and what his politics are. He has already been governor of Massachusetts, and people have a great chance to look at his record and look at his life and decide based not on his religion, but based on how he has performed. They can look at his past to see if they have any indication that being a Mormon distorted anything. E-mail to a friend