Evangelicals recently met to reach a consensus on which candidate not named Mitt Romney they should support for the Republican presidential nomination. The irony is not only in the location of the meeting, but who they decided to support.
As anyone paying attention to presidential politics knows, the evangelicals threw their Christian weight behind the candidacy of Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum is Catholic. The evangelicals met in Texas, near Houston.
What’s the irony? Let me explain.
In September 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he addressed the divisive issue of religion in the U.S. presidential campaign. The controversy was over Kennedy’s Catholicism and fears by many that a Catholic president will find his loyalty divided between his nation and his church. The Pope may become puppet master, some suggested, pulling the president’s strings.
Kennedy’s speech helped blunt that criticism, or at least shift the nation’s attention away from Catholicism and to more pressing issues such as Communism and Cuba and the economy.
How times have changed. Except not so much.
Mormonism, it seems, is the new Catholicism.
It’s useful, I believe, to recall Kennedy’s words from some 50 years ago. In his speech he both said what many wanted to hear – that he was independent of the Vatican – but also perhaps what they didn’t want to hear, that he felt government and religion must remain separate. “No Catholic has ever been elected president,” he said, and by raising the matter, “the real issues of this campaign have been obscured.”
Kennedy then made a compelling point: the election should not be about what religion he believes in, which he argued should be of importance only to himself, but “what kind of America I believe in.”
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
You can see how these words might upset some religious leaders today, not only Protestant conservatives but even many Catholics, bishops and higher, who dearly want to impose their will on the public acts of officials.
Santorum, a conservative Catholic not to be confused with the Catholicism of John Kerry or even JFK, won three-quarters of the evangelical votes at that ranch just outside Houston. In fairness, in seeking a viable alternative to Romney the evangelicals emphasized not his religion but his moderate political stances and perceived wavering on such core issues as abortion and gay marriage. Nevertheless, many conservative Christians have been less than, er, Christian, at least when it comes to Romney’s Mormonism. Some have even tried to separate Mormons from the Christian flock.
The cynic in me says it’s all about religion, not matter how hard they try to paint it as political differences. The realist in me says it’s a mix of politics and religion, and that these “moderate” political differences mask a deeper religious suspicion that while many won’t say, most probably feel.
And as Kennedy suggested in Houston so very long ago, those differences are not only unimportant, they come very close to being un-American.