But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations…”
1 Samuel 8:19
As I noted a few weeks ago, the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has prompted questions about Mormonism and the fitness of Mormons to serve in public office. It has also prompted references to the 1960 presidential election, in which John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was seen by some as a bar to the presidency.
The standard narrative—the way this episode is presented in high school history classes—is that Kennedy’s election was a great leap forward for American Catholics, and certainly it was experienced as such at the time. No longer were Catholics seen as second-class citizens; Kennedy’s election proved, to use his words, that “40 million Americans [had not] lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized.”
Early on in their candidacies both candidates gave speeches, both in Texas, attempting to head off the “religious issue.” While both speeches are rhetorically powerful, that of the Mormon, I’m sorry to say, is more nuanced and more thoughtful. Both Kennedy and Romney make the case that their religion should not disqualify them from office; that as president they intend to serve all Americans and not only their coreligionists; and that they are not spokesmen for their respective churches.
Seen in retrospect, however, Kennedy seems far more willing to bury his Catholicism beneath a bushel basket—and then douse that bushel basket with concrete—than Romney is with his Mormonism. To be fair to Kennedy, his speech in many ways reflects the era in which it was given, when American society was far more homogeneous and a much broader moral consensus existed than does today. American society was more religious generally, with secularism per se a negligible phenomenon, and mainline Protestantism still a dominant cultural force. Catholic identity was thicker—in ways hard to imagine for those of my generation—with new seminaries under construction, Mass attendance at around eighty percent, and the system of Catholic social services (schools, hospitals, colleges) still very close to their immigrant roots. Perhaps the nuance that Kennedy’s speech lacks did not seem, at the time, necessary.