“The Religion Question”

In honor of Mitt Romney, The Washington Post gone into the archives to excavate some of the then-contemporary coverage of John F. Kennedy’s religion speech. As always, peering back in time is fascinating. At the end of the day, though, it seems to keep circling back to the very different context of Kennedy’s times:

And the Post editorial board, even as it praised Nixon, seemed ready to embrace a Catholic president:“Mr. Kennedy has stated plainly and unequivocally that he is not governed by the Church in political and other secular affairs. There is no more reason to believe that his course as a public official would be dictated by the tenets of the Church hierarchy on, say, birth control or censorship than there is to impute to a man who worships with the Society of Friends the tenets of that faith on, say disarmament and defense….“In a country which has said as a part of its fundamental law that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust,’ would it not be a good idea to judge candidates for the Presidency exclusively on their past political performance, their political programs and their capacities for leadership?”

These days, it’s considered de rigeur for politicians to loudly proclaim that their views are driven by faith. A candidate who runs for office by promising to treat his religious heritage as a meaningless quirk of ancestry would have a very hard time. But that means it can be very difficult to dispel worries about a “weird” religion. Indeed, since the Post brought it up, it’s worth wondering whether a Quaker like Richard Nixon could be elected today. I can’t imagine the voters going for an avowed pacifist, but it also seems that you’d have a lot of trouble portraying youself as someone who doesn’t really care about “faith.” Indeed, we even saw a lot of the Catholic hierarchy basically trying to sabotage John Kerry’s presidential campaign in a way that suggests that even Catholics may have more difficulties today than they did in 1960.