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Catholic guidelines for politicians and other believers

History of Catholic presidential and
vice-presidential nominees in the U.S.

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Alfred E Smith's run for the presidency (1928):

The Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ, wrote:

When Catholic immigrants arrived in this country at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, they were the underclass confronted by a white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant (WASP) establishment that was predominately Republican. As a result, from the very beginning Catholics were drawn to the Democratic Party. Even before Franklin D. Roosevelt, Catholics became an essential component of the Democratic Party coalition in 1928 when Al Smith ran for the presidency and was met by the most anti-Catholic campaign ever waged in the United States. Luckily for Catholics and the Democratic Party, Smith lost, otherwise they would have been blamed for the Great Depression. 1

According to an essay by the U.S. State Department:

"Anti-Catholic prejudice, the fear that a Catholic president would 'take orders' from the Pope, insured Smith's defeat. Methodist Bishop Adna Leonard declared: 'No Governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gunshot of the White House.' Even liberal Protestants were concerned. The Christian Century declared it could not 'look with unconcern upon the seating of a representative of an alien culture, of a medieval, Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the President of the United States'." 2

Anti-Catholic hate and bigotry was sufficient to prevent any other Catholic presidential candidate from being nominated for over three decades.

Still, in spite of Smith's defeat, as ReligionLink states:

"Smith's nomination was a watershed, a sign that an immigrant community had emerged from its isolation..." 3

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John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency (1960):

Kennedy was the second Roman Catholic nominee for president of the U.S., and the first who was successfully elected in 1960.

During his election campaign, Kennedy, he gave a speech to the Southern Baptist Conference. He said, in part:

"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 a 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 accepts 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."

"For, while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim -- but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."

"Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equal -- where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice -- where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind -- and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood."

"That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe -- a great office that must be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding it, its occupancy from the members of any religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. ..."

But let me stress again that these are my views -- for, contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President [but the candidate] who happens also to be a Catholic.

I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience, or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office, and I hope any other conscientious public servant would do likewise.

But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith, nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election. If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate satisfied that I tried my best and was fairly judged.

But if this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000 Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people. 2

Some commentators believe that Kennedy lost at least a half million votes because of his religious affiliation. However, he did receive support from 78% of his fellow Catholics. He defeated Nixon by only 100,000 votes.

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Following Kennedy's election, three Catholics were nominated for vice president in the next three election cycles:

  • William Miller (R) in 1964,
  • Edmund Muskie (D) in 1968
  • Sargent Shriver (D) in 1972. 3

Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro (D) for his vice-presidential candidate in 1984. She was the first female VP candidate in history.

However, there has been only one Roman Catholic presidential nominee in the 46 years since Kennedy. That was John Kerry in 2004. This is in spite of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church claims over 65 million members in the U.S.

Recent statements by Catholic leaders have reopened a situation that many people believe Kennedy had closed in 1960. The Vatican expects Roman Catholic politicians to follow the Church's teachings, regardless of the representative, his or her constituents, and the majority beliefs in the country. There have been instances in which Catholic politicians were denied communion because of their stance on abortion access.

These expectations and actions by the Catholic Church may well make it much more difficult for Roman Catholics to become elected to senior political positions now and in the future.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Thomas J. Reese, "Catholic Voters: Pulled in two directions," America, 1996-NOV-02, at: http://woodstock.georgetown.edu/
  2. "Address to Southern Baptist Leaders (1960)," U.S. State Department, at: http://usinfo.state.gov/
  3. "KENNEDY TO KERRY: Kerry, Catholics and the White House," ReligionLink.org, 2004-MAY-03, at: http://www.religionlink.org/

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Copyright © 2006 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-OCT-21
Latest update: 2010-DEC-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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