February 21, 2004

Catholics and the White House

Something occurred to me this afternoon as I walked home from the grocery store: assuming that John Kerry wins the Democratic nomination this year, he will become only the third Catholic presidential nominee of a major party in American history. This strikes me as a really interesting fact, not because it suggests that Kerry is some sort of pioneer (he isn't) or because it implies that anti-Catholic prejudice is keeping Catholics out of the White House (it's not), but because it tells us something about the history of prejudice in America.

Until this year, Roman Catholics have only been nominated for president twice. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Alfred Smith in 1928, and his religious faith was one factor in his landslide loss to Herbert Hoover. Thirty-two years later, John F. Kennedy became the second Catholic to run a major-party campaign for president; he was elected in 1960 only after he addressed the religion issue head-on, reassuring voters that he would think through the issues himself and not merely follow the orders of the Pope. A handful of Catholics have been nominated for vice president since then (like Geraldine Ferraro and Sargent Shriver), but the most prominent Catholic to run for president in recent years was Pat Buchanan.

One reason that Kerry's Catholic faith hasn't attracted more attention, I suspect, is that he doesn't widely advertise his religious views. His mother's ancestors, from the Forbes family, were one of Boston's most prominent Brahmin families; the fortune was based on whaling, opium-dealing, and trade with China, and Forbes family members were among Boston's wealthiest Protestants. Kerry's grandfather, meanwhile, was an Austrian Jew named Fritz Kohn who changed his name to Frederick Kerry when he moved to America in 1905. John Kerry looks like a Boston Brahmin, and though a lot of people assume that his ancestors were Irish Catholics, no one worries too much about his religious faith.

Nevertheless, the main reason that Kerry's Catholic background doesn't seem like a big deal has nothing to do with John Kerry. More than 40 years after the election of John F. Kennedy, the idea of a Catholic president just doesn't seem like a big deal: I can imagine a lot of Americans worrying about a Mormon or a Jewish presidential candidate, but Catholicism itself no longer seems exotic or out of the mainstream. That's an important lesson to keep in mind. Forty years from now, the current debate about gay marriage may seem as bizarre to most Americans as the 1960s discussion of Catholics in politics seems to us today. In one sense, then, the most noteworthy thing isn't that John Kerry may well become only the third Catholic presidentical nominee in U.S. history--it's that no one seems to notice this fact or care much about it.

Even so, the fact that only two Catholics were nominated for president in the 1900s still seems like a sociologically interesting fact. Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in America, including roughly a quarter of the population and a third of the religious population; nevertheless, it's taken us longer to nominate a third Catholic presidential candidate after JFK's victory than it took us to nominate a second Catholic candidate after Alfred Smith's defeat. Why? I have no idea. The importance of the (mostly Protestant) South in Democratic politics and the association of Northeastern Catholic politicians with unpopular liberal policies may have something to do with it.

Posted by Ed at February 21, 2004 05:00 PM

You make a good point about people not noticing Kerry's Catholicism. Several years ago, the same thing occurred to me about the "Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court. For five decades in the 20th century, one seat on the court was continuously occupied by a Jewish justice. No one noticed much one way or another when it was no longer held by a Jew and, later, no one noticed much one way or another, when there was more than one Jewish justices on the Court. When no one notices, we've passed a milestone.

Posted by: Ralph Luker at February 21, 2004 08:10 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?