Why Have There Been No Catholic Presidents Since John F. Kennedy?

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis share a laugh as President Obama welcomed the Pontiff upon his arrival at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington September 22. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It seems almost impossible to imagine now that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a huge issue in the 1960 presidential campaign. His victory in the Democratic primary in West Virginia—a state with a small Catholic population—was a huge boost to his candidacy because it proved that anti-Catholic prejudice might be waning. In the fall campaign against Richard Nixon, Kennedy traveled to Houston to reassure Protestant ministers that he wouldn’t take orders from Rome or let his faith affect his decisions in the Oval Office. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” Kennedy said. Even after he was president, Kennedy gave a big welcome to evangelist Billy Graham, but also met with a Vatican representative and allowed no photographers.

When Kennedy won, it seemed likely that more Catholic presidents would follow but that has not been the case. There’s been only one Catholic presidential nominee among the 28 party nominations since Kennedy, and that was another JFK, John Forbes Kerry in 2004.

There have been an abundance of Catholic vice presidential nominees since 1960, but their Catholicism was often seen as a balance to the Protestant at the top of the ticket. They include William E. Miller, Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964; Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968; Sargent Shriver, George McGovern’s running mate in 1972; Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984; and Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, which made Biden the first Catholic elected nationwide since JFK 48 years earlier.

Since 1960, we’ve seen the election of candidates from much smaller denominations. Richard Nixon was a Quaker. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore are Baptists. We’ve had Greek Orthodox and Mormon presidential nominees (Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney) and a Jewish vice-presidential nominee (Joe Lieberman).

With several Catholics in this year’s race, including Jeb Bush (who converted to the faith) and Marco Rubio (who left the church to become a Mormon and then returned), there’s a chance that we’ll have a Catholic presidential nominee again and maybe a Catholic president.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that JFK, who served in the Senate with Prescott Bush, a Connecticut WASP, could have imagined that Pressy’s grandson would be the second Catholic president and not, say, an Italian from New York.

There’s no simple explanation as to why we haven’t had a second Catholic president but prejudice doesn’t seem to be the case. We’ve had a Mormon nominee, Mitt Romney, and a Jewish veep nominee in Lieberman, who didn’t fail because of bigoted views about their faith. Indeed, the Gore-Lieberman ticket won the popular vote.

Part of the reason for the dearth of Catholic nominees may be that the two parties have tended to nominate from the South, which has been growing, and few from the northeast, which is the most Catholic region and has lost population. Lyndon Johnson, Carter, both Bushes and Bill Clinton all hail from southern states. There hasn’t been a president from the northeast since Richard Nixon, and he was a Californian when he was elected to the House, Senate and vice presidency and he only resided in New York for a few years when he was elected president in 1968. If you’re getting most of your nominees from the South, odds are they won’t be Catholic.

Other reasons have been proffered. Abortion is a tricky position for Catholic Democrats. There were moves to excommunicate Kerry for his pro-choice views. Some have cited how the evangelical style of Protestantism, with its public professions of faith, has become widely expected in American politics and more Protestant candidates come out of that tradition.

It could be that this is the year that breaks the drought and not just with any Catholic, but with overtly religious ones unlike JFK. Jeb carries a rosary and has even jetted to Washington for the Pope’s visit this week. Rubio’s attends mass.. But first they have to overcome Protestants like Carly Fiorina (nondenominational), John Kasich (lapsed Catholic turned Episcopalian), Donald Trump (Presbyterian) and Ben Carson (Seventh Day Adventist). These Protestant Republicans are running far ahead of other Republican Catholics like Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Bobby Jindal (who was raised a Hindu). On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is the only Catholic in the race although the party is awaiting Joe Biden’s decision.

And if we don’t elect a Catholic this year, demographics make it more likely it’ll happen before too long. The growing Hispanic population makes it harder not to have a Catholic on the ticket and not just as a vice president.

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