American Christians And The 2012 Election

When John Kennedy ran for the Presidency against Richard Nixon in 1960, there was a deep anxiety in the country about his Roman Catholic heritage and the potential for clerical intrusion into presidential decision making.

As campaigning picked up, an organization called Fair Campaign Practices Committee convened in Washington on March 24-25, 1960.  They issued a statement that called on public officials to govern by personal conscience informed by religious faith, but not to oppose or support a candidate because of religious affiliation, not to view campaigns as opportunity to vote one religion as against another, and that everyone should avoid stirring up or tolerating religious animosity.

Dr. Carl Henry, editor of Christianity Today, and America's leading evangelical theologian at that time, participated in the work of the Committee.  He called some of his theological friends, including me, to ask their opinion as to what evangelicals should do about Kennedy's candidacy.  My suggestion was that we accept Kennedy's statement on his independence from clerical intrusion.  Dr. Henry wrote a widely noted opinion that evangelicals need not withhold votes from Kennedy solely on grounds of his Catholicism, but to judge the candidate on his own merits.

As September rolled around, anxiety in the Kennedy campaign crew over the religion issue intensified, especially when Norman Vincent Peale, a very popular Protestant preacher, columnist, and anti-Catholic activist, led a group of Protestant ministers to oppose Kennedy's candidacy on grounds that Kennedy would serve the interests of the Roman Catholic Church before the interests of the United States.  Such opposition intensified when the National Association of Evangelicals entered the lists against a candidate who espoused Roman Catholic faith.

In light of Kennedy's slim majority (112,754 votes, 0.1%), theories abound as to whether the Chicago Democrat and mobster machines corruptly multiplied votes for Kennedy to put him over the top, or that Lyndon Johnson did the same in Texas.  I am convinced that Carl Henry's comments made many evangelicals feel free to vote for Kennedy.  Indeed, the evangelical segment of the votes may have been decisive.

What did Kennedy do during the closing weeks of the campaign to allay the fears of Christian and other voters who were not Roman Catholic?

On September 12, 1960, Kennedy addressed 300 Protestant ministers of the Houston Ministerial Association (mostly Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and other evangelicals) at the Rice Hotel in Houston.  He made three major points: he believed in an America where separation of church and state is absolute; no religious body should impose its beliefs on the general populace or the public acts of its officials; his decisions as president would be based on good public policy, not sectarian doctrine.  The key sentence was:

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters - and the Church does not speak for me.

Protestants could not have asked for more.  His statement ameliorated a great deal of anxiety in the South over the religion question and allowed his to concentrate on the north-eastern states.

Timed to perfection, in the 50th year after Kennedy's Houston address, a prominent Roman Catholic Archbishop repudiated Kennedy's statement in the same venue: the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  This time convened at Houston Baptist University, on March 1, 2010.

The Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput of Denver, began with a qualification: his thoughts were purely his own.  He was not speaking on behalf of the Holy See, or the American Catholic bishops, or the Houston Catholic community, but simply as a Catholic Christian (italics his) and an American citizen.  Nevertheless, Catholics and others would regard the comments of such a prominent member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as intended to influence.

He agreed that America was born Protestant and that this, on balance, has been a great blessing for humanity. However, he said, Roman Catholics and Protestants have different memories of American history -- referencing anti-Catholic sentiment in America's history.  Nevertheless, the familial bond of all Christians suggests that they owe each other solidarity in times when the popular culture derides religious faith in general, and Christian faith in particular.

He then proceeded to say that while Kennedy's speech was sincere, compelling, and articulate, it was wrong and has left a lasting mark on American politics: wrong about the role of religious faith in national life.  Half a century later, he said, we're paying for the damage.

The Archbishop accused Kennedy of making religion an internal, private matter, divorced from public policy.  Too many Catholics, he said, now live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy -- the kind they'll never allow to become a public nuisance.

He then proceeded to list urgent issues Christians face today to which they must bring a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and the believing community.

I submit that what Kennedy said and meant nothing less.  It is remarkable that a few days ago Rick Santorum, now developing his possible presidential candidacy for 2012, referenced Kennedy's speech at a luncheon in Newton, Massachusetts, and, along with Archbishop Chaput, repudiated it.  He said that, frankly, he was appalled by what Kennedy said:

We're seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process. Jefferson is spinning in his grave.

However, Kennedy in his speech did not divorce faith or the Christian frame of reference from the public square; rather, he rejected claims of clerical authority upon conscience and the public interest.  He was clear:

But if the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be even 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 conscientious public servant would do the same.

What about today's Christian electorate as they confront public policy issues that will dominate discussion leading up to the 2012 presidential election?

Roman Catholics

The majority of Roman Catholics no longer pay very much attention to what their priests and bishops say about politics, or accept advice from them on how to vote.  Most quietly receive the sacrament but vote their consciences and preferences on the policy and practice of such matters as abortion, gay marriage, taxation, welfare, and foreign policy.

Traditional, old-line Catholics in America in the past, especially in the Northeast and Midwest of the country, comprised a solid Democrat voting bloc.  However, a new significant trend has developed during the past three decades.  It is the growth of personal Christian faith among younger Roman Catholics, much to the mystification of observers in Europe.  One might even call it evangelical Catholic faith -- signaled recently by the conversion of public figures such as Newt Gingrich in America and by Tony Blair and the late Malcolm Muggeridge in Britain.  In America these by and large are committed to democratic, free-market, entrepreneurially oriented societies and will, or can easily be persuaded to, vote conservative or independent.

This new generation of Roman Catholics in America more openly professes deep personal faith and commitment to moral values, and they often discount advice or directives from clerics, especially on matters of sex, marriage, gender identity, foreign policy, science and technology, and questions of war and peace.  While respectful of clergy, Roman Catholics are far less reluctant to stay mute and are much more prone to form independent judgments.  There are now more Roman Catholics in office in America and celebrities in the news media than ever before in American history.

The rapid growth of the Hispanic population is a significant factor -- to which I can add the fervency of Catholic faith among significant populations of American Vietnamese.

While not a few Hispanics have turned to evangelical faith, the vast majority are traditional Roman Catholics, strongly committed to basic Christian beliefs, especially to values that sustain marriage and stable family life.  Republicans now have a golden opportunity to invite Hispanics into Republican Party ranks because fundamentally they espouse conservative values and would prefer not to be Democrat Party welfare clients.  For example, Hispanics in Southern California are especially open to such an approach, given an effective strategy and personnel to reach out to them.


Traditional Protestants, among whom I group Presbyterians, Methodists, the American Baptist Convention, some black groups loyal to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church, are groups fading in political significance.  Liberal public policy activists such as Jim Wallis appeal to some of them.  They are in each case badly divided in regard to liberal theology, liberation theology, and social issues (especially the ordination of gay persons).  Indeed, it may well be that Presbyterians and Methodists will divide on the gay ordination issue.  Many of their churches have distanced themselves and no longer fund their denominational headquarters.  A large segment of American Baptist churches in the West have recently seceded from the American Baptist Convention.  In some cases representatives from those traditional Protestant groups may make political statements but brief, if any, attention is paid to them.

Regrettably the strong Protestant voices -- especially Presbyterian and Congregationalist -- that helped form our nation have now virtually disappeared.  The last significant one of these (who dealt with America's Heritage in the pulpit) was the splendid Presbyterian preacher, the late Dr. James Kennedy, at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida.  

Conservative Episcopalians, such as the very large Falls Church Episcopal congregation in Virginia, where some prominent Congressional and Washington employees worship, can be expected to vote conservative (a large portion of the congregation have recently disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church USA and meet separately).  The number of Americans who are part of Episcopal churches is not large, but their influence is significant, especially in the media -- for example, Fred Barnes.


Of the three main polity types of churches in Christendom (Episcopal, Reformed, Believers Church) the vast majority of American evangelical Christians are members of churches which embrace Believers Church polity -- Baptists, Pentecostals, Church of God, Nazarenes, Mennonites, and most independent churches.

These comprise a very large segment of America's voting population -- of those who actually vote.  Believers Church types are churches where local congregations are self-governing, not functioning under the mandate of a Bishop or Episcopal hierarchy.

The largest of these, Southern Baptists, the Pentecostal Assemblies, and several black Baptist Conventions, are significant voting blocs.  Most will vote conservative tickets, except for blacks, many of whom since the Kennedy era instinctively vote Democrat.

These Christians are less and less prone to vote single issues such as abortion, and less and less prone to vote the guidance of ministerial gurus such as Pat Robertson.  Most are concerned about jobs, onerous bureaucracy and taxation, the stability of family life, and the educational and economic future of their children.

What Now?

Christians in America generally will support a conservative ticket.  They are, as well, the largest and most generous segment of American life that altruistically and regularly support the needy as a matter of committed life style.

Here is what will solidly consolidate the vote of Christians in America for a presidential candidate:

No doctrinaire sentiments whether on matters of personal faith or on public policy issues -- social or economic -- whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical.

Positive, direct, not weasel-like politically convenient, profession of faith if the candidate identifies himself or herself as a Christian and how that faith impinges on public policy issues.  If not of Christian persuasion, a candidate must give a clear-cut statement on personally held secular moral and spiritual values.

The best approach of a Christian candidate is to frame the campaign from the standpoint of a Christian world view, with a pronounced emphasis on the maintenance of religious and political tolerance as a core principle of America's founding.  This approach should reflect with clarity a general Christian frame of reference which will, as well, dismiss by implication the value-less arbitrariness of secularists and any relevance of Shariah law.

A modern example is the landmark The Christian View of God and the World by James Orr of just over a century ago, which went through nine editions.  To update such a presentation one ought to stress the seminal nature of the Christian faith as reflected in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed: on God as Creator and Sustainer of the world, his love and providential concern for humanity, his saving grace in Jesus Christ, and the Christian's commitment to truth, justice, and equality as the fountain-head of democracy.

Among the many memorable statements made by founders of our nation there is no better illustration than that of the letter Roger Williams wrote in which, by the analogy of a ship at sea, he argued that the passengers had full liberty to worship as they pleased whether "Papists, Protestants, Jews, Turks" but that the captain had the responsibility to command that justice, peace, and sobriety be kept and practiced on board -- in other words the civility of free men and women.  That is the principle Jefferson enacted in Virginia, which became the First Amendment to our Constitution, on religious liberty.

These were the sentiments of freedom generations of Christians expressed which fed into the founding of America as a democratic society -- a society run under the principles of a Constitution, the rule of law, and a benevolent Creator, not the authority of autocrats.

These were the people who trudged into the undeveloped frontier to create the great agricultural and industrial engine that America became.

Can we renew our vision of America as the land of opportunity?  Will a candidate arise who has the negotiating toughness and intestinal fortitude to reassert America's leadership in the world?  Is there a candidate with the requisite qualifications who will put up his or her hand and say "that's where I stand, and without ambiguity that's what I pledge to do"?

Samuel Mikolaski is a retired theology professor. His curriculum vitae and published work are on his website.