During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy addressed a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston to assure them that he did not take orders from the Pope and that his religion would not influence his decisions as President. The 2008 campaign shows how much some things have changed, and how much others have stayed the same.
First, the thing that hasn’t changed. For all our social progress over the past 47 years, intolerance and bigotry still exist, even with regard to religion. So far in this campaign Mitt Romney has had to defend the fact that he is a Mormon, and Evangelical leader James Dobson has said that he doesn’t think former Senator Fred Thompson is a Christian, or at least certainly not Christian enough (read my articles on Dobson’s views on Thompson here and his views in general here).
In 1960, Kennedy had to defend himself from anti-Catholic bias harbored by a great many Protestants in America. Simply being Catholic helped kill Alfred E. Smith’s Presidential chances in 1928. Dobson has taken this one step further by claiming that Thompson is not a “true” Christian, even though he is a member of the Church of Christ; at least in this instance the fight has moved from Protestant vs. Catholic to Protestant vs. Protestant. It seems that while it is important to be a Christian in today’s elections, it can be far more damaging to be the “wrong” kind of Christian.
What hasn’t changed, however, pales in comparison to what has. In 1960, Kennedy in essence had to publicly state that he would keep his religion out his politics. Good luck getting a candidate to do that now. George W. Bush has said in the past that Jesus is his favorite philosopher and has all but said that he checks with God (and Karl Rove) before making any major decision. This year it seems that all of the people who want to replace Bush in the White House are playing the God card as well.
Interestingly, this year the Democratic candidates seem more comfortable discussing their faith than their Republican counterparts, a significant change from previous elections.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Romney said, “I don’t think that a person who is running for a secular position as I am should talk about or engage in discussions of what they in their personal faith or their personal beliefs think is immoral or not immoral.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani didn’t want to talk about his faith, either. His campaign told the Associated Press that “the mayor’s personal relationship with God is private and between him and God.”
By contrast, the Democrats are scrambling to attract religious voters they previously ignored. Democratic Senators. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have hired strategists to focus specifically on reaching religious voters. In March, John Edwards told the multi-faith web site Beliefnet.com that Jesus would be appalled at how the nation has ignored the plight of the suffering in America.
Recent history has shown that it is unlikely that a candidate can be elected President in 2008 without discussing at some length the role that faith plays in their life and in their political decision-making. We’ve come a long way since 1960, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.