It's hard, in this unrooted era, to remember what made the presidential election of 1960 so scary for millions of evangelical Protestants. These days, when shallow nominalism seems to be the default assumption about almost every candidate's faith, it's easy to forget that what deeply worried so many folks 52 years ago was that maybe John F. Kennedy took his Roman Catholic commitments overly seriously.
Maybe, folks fretted, his roots were too deep. If it came to a showdown, skeptics asked, would JFK-as the first Catholic president in American history-be loyal to the Constitution or to the Pope in Rome?
Kennedy, of course, proved to be a pretty nominal Catholic. He was hugely successful in minimizing the concerns that bothered so many. His historic address, halfway through that year's campaign, to the Houston Ministerial Association is viewed by some as a landmark statement on church-state relations in the United States.
"I believe in an America," Kennedy said in Houston, "where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
"I believe in an America," Kennedy continued, "that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
It wasn't just through Kennedy's words, of course, that we learned how casually he took his commitments to his church. Ultimately, neither the Kennedy clan nor most other leading Democrats could claim anything more than nominal adherence to their various churches.
What's startling as you read the Kennedy defense is how far we've moved in that half century. Back then, we worried that there might be too much allegiance to particular faith structures. Now many of us worry that there might be no commitment to any faith structure at all. We worry now that a candidate's value system, rather than being rooted in any historic faith system, grows blindly out of a mindless (but still ideological) confidence that big government can somehow accomplish anything it sets out to do.
Back then, some of us worried that Catholics in high places might impinge on our religious liberty. Now we find ourselves worrying-as Protestants-that the federal government is in fact already impinging on the liberty of our Catholic friends, and may soon come after us as well.
To be sure, there are those-even now-who pretend that there's a real and imminent danger that the historic Catholic opposition to contraceptives is about to become official federal policy. Such a worry is both feigned and laughable. It's a boogeyman, if ever there was one. What's much more likely is that the Catholic right (and then the right of the rest of us) to make its case about personal sexual behavior, even among its own people, might be restricted or even denied.
Along the way, folks who 50 years ago were at loggerheads now find themselves as co-belligerents, or even as heart-to-heart allies. The current wave of support among evangelicals for Rick Santorum is a dramatic reminder how radically matters can change in a relatively short time. When Santorum speaks passionately about the "authority" of "the church" being at risk at the hands of federal bureaucrats-and then you hear evangelicals just as passionately cheering him on-well, that's when you know that you're in the middle of a discussion altogether different from the one that so much worried John Kennedy's opponents back in 1960.