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The Role of Religion in Presidential Campaigns

E.J. Dionne and Shaun Casey discuss the changing shape of religion in presidential races, from Kennedy to Obama.

Both the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960 and the Obama campaign in 2008 were marked by suspicion and rumors about the candidate’s religion. For Kennedy, it was fear of his Catholicism. For Obama, it was fear that he was a secret Muslim. To some extent, both men were “outsider” candidates, said Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at an event Monday.

The event marked publication of a new book entitled, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960, and featured a discussion with the author and former CAP visiting fellow Shaun Casey, and E.J. Dionne, Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Washington Post columnist. Casey’s book examines how John F. Kennedy and his campaign managed the issue of religion at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments were pervasive in American culture and political life. .

Casey said that Kennedy was shocked by this animosity. “He received letters from staunch Democrats who praised him yet regretted that ‘because you’re Catholic I can’t vote for you’,” Casey said. The norms of the day, Casey explained, included the conviction that a Catholic president would be more loyal to the Pope in Rome than to the U.S. Constitution, and that there should be no separation between church and state.

Characterizing 1960 as “the larval stage for the religious right,” Casey noted that the Nixon campaign made use of Protestant prejudice against Catholics and that some of these efforts laid the groundwork for future actions by the religious right. E.J. Dionne pointed out parallels between the prejudice regarding Catholicism in Kennedy’s day and Islam today. Both religions have been seen as anti-democratic and incompatible with American principles. Kennedy and Obama both tackled the issue of religion head-on.

Despite this similarity, a significant difference between then and now is that in the 60s it was not acceptable for a candidate to talk freely and fully about his personal religious faith, while today that kind of religious talk is acceptable—and sometimes seems required. Although Catholics today have gone from being outsiders to integrated into American culture and politics, current outliers are Muslims and nonbelievers. Casey said we need a broad inclusive public conversation in which secular humanists and people of faith can find overlapping interests and areas of common ground.

“At the heart of being a liberal,” Dionne said, “is not to be a bigot of any kind.”

More on this event: Values and Voters

Project: Faith & Progressive Policy

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