Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Of Protestants, politicians and power

(RNS) As the Republicans leave Tampa and the Democrats prepare to gather in Charlotte, one dynamic is immediately clear in both parties: For the first time since Abraham Lincoln ran in 1860, no white Protestant will be on the ticket of either major party.

Mitt Romney, the newly minted Republican nominee for the White House, is a Mormon, though he clearly does not want to talk publicly about how his faith shapes his identity and personal values. Paul Ryan, his running mate, is a Catholic, a fact Romney made sure to mention in the vice presidential rollout ceremony. Indeed, Romney’s two closest rivals in the GOP presidential primaries were also Catholics: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

On the Democratic side, President Obama is an African-American Protestant despite the fetid conspiratorial screams that the president is a crypto-Muslim. Finally, Vice President Joe Biden, like Ryan, is an Irish-American Catholic. 

Gone are the bad old days of 1928 when New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, faced withering religious prejudice in his unsuccessful campaign against Herbert Hoover, a Quaker. In September 1960, the first and so far only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, described his religious beliefs in a historic speech at a Greater Houston Ministerial Association meeting:

“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.”

The anti-Catholicism of the 1928 and 1960 presidential campaigns were shameful examples of religious bigotry.

The absence of a Protestant on the current GOP ticket is surprising for a party that finds its strongest support among evangelicals and other branches of the “religious right.” If, God forbid, America has no living president or vice president, the speaker of the House of Representatives becomes our nation’s top leader. And the two most recent speakers — Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner — are both Catholics. 

When Justice John Paul Stevens, a Protestant, retired from the Supreme Court in 2010, it was another unique moment: Today, not a single Protestant sits on the nation’s highest court. Rather, the “Supremes” are six Catholics and three Jews.

Is there a link between the membership decline among mainline Protestant denominations and the absence of Protestants from top positions of political and judicial power? Is it the end of the Protestant political hegemony in America that began in the 18th century? Perhaps. But I believe the reality is what Gilbert and Sullivan wrote in their operetta “HMS Pinafore:” “Things are seldom what they seem.”

It would be an error to underestimate or write off the Protestant influence on American politics. One example: While mainline church members today represent less than one in five Americans (even as 80 percent of Americans identify as Christians), they continue to have an important impact in the political arena far in excess of their shrinking numbers. Mainline Protestants still constitute more than one-third of the membership of the current U.S. Congress.

However, with the rapid demographic and sociological changes now underway, it may not be so much the end of one dynamic as the birth of a new one. Get ready for Hindus, Jews, Hispanics, Buddhists, Muslims, gays, women, atheists and many other groups to head up future GOP and Democratic tickets. They’re all coming to a ballot box near you.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)

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A. James Rudin

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  • I am not understanding the line “For the first time since Abraham Lincoln ran in 1860, no white Protestant will be on the ticket of either major party.”

    Lincoln’s religious views are complex and a lot of contradictory information and statements exist regarding his ideas at different moments of his life. A simple wikipedia search would have pointed out to you that, “Abraham Lincoln’s religious beliefs are a matter of unsettled discussion” so why the author would carelessly through in such a distracting line of questionable accuracy is beyond my guess.

    Secondly, even if Lincoln was not a Protestant (no matter how broadly we are defining the term) there were other men on other tickets in the 1860 election. Remember that in 1860 the election was a 4 way contest so you had 8 guys total running for President or VP.

    Southern Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge (who had been the Vice President under Buchanan) was a Presbyterian. Without even looking into the backgrounds of any of the other candidates it is enough to merit a correction to this story.