Evangelicals, Catholics & Politics

JFK, as presidential candidate, addressing Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960.

Over the weekend, a group of politically-active evangelical leaders gathered in Texas to determine who they would jointly support among the candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination. According to reports, the two finalists were Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. From those choices, the evangelical leaders decided to endorse Rick Santorum, despite knowing his chances of beating front-runner Mitt Romney are a long-shot, at best.

Hearing about this gathering of ministers in Texas reminded me of a bit of presidential election trivia involving a gathering of protestant ministers (mostly Southern Baptists) in Houston to hear a speech delivered by Preisdential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960 (Note: While, yes, I was alive at the time, I learned about it from books read many years later). For several reasons, the 1960 speech has been judged by historians as one of the most important of Kennedy’s career.  For example, on the website of the JFK Presidential Library’s section titled Historic Speeches, the speech he delivered that day is listed second.

Here is some context for that 1960 speech provided by the JFK Library:

“Anti-Catholic prejudice, the fear that a Catholic president would “take orders” from the Pope, insured Smith’s defeat. John F. Kennedy quickly discovered that many Americans were still worried that a young Catholic candidate for president would be under the influence of the Catholic Church and that the nation would ultimately be run by the pope in Rome rather than the president in Washington. Some Americans vowed not to support John F. Kennedy for the presidency for this reason. Fear of a government unduly influenced by religious interests was real and seen as a distinct liability for this Catholic candidate. John F. Kennedy finally decided to try to defeat the issue by meeting it head-on, and on September 12, 1960, he spoke before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in Houston, Texas.”

It is truly an incredible speech, and I encourage you to read it all. But here’s an especially significant quote in light of the weekend gathering of evangelical leaders who met to endorse a candidate for the GOP nomination:

“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 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, at both the lay and 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.”

I don’t know what’s more amazing. That a half-century after Kennedy narrowly squeaked into office by holding on to electoral college votes from some deep-south Southern Baptist states (four years later, they were the only states LBJ lost), a group of evangelical ministers in Texas would gather together to practice bloc-voting and partisan politics. Or that, in some strange and beautifully ironic (miraculous?) way, the evangelical leaders passed-over Rick Perry, a member of an independent evangelical congregation and Ron Paul, a Baptist, to choose between pledging their bloc-support to Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich,* both of whom are Catholics. And then choose Santorum. Apparently, being governed by the Vatican doesn’t seem to scare evangelicals anymore.

But stick around for the real show, the one that will require those evangelical leaders to endorse a Mormon. My prediction is this: Not going to happen.

*Frankly, Newt Gingrich would have been near impossible for the group to support as they may believe while God can forgive certain sins, they don’t have to. And Gingrich has some doozies.

[Update: Despite the focus of news coverage of the gathering being “evangelicals,” apparently there were also ‘Conservative Catholic activists’ taking part, as well. And, despite me not being able to follow exactly what went on, apparently there was an attempt to reenact the Reformation during the meeting.]

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