The Protestant Presidency

articles
Feb. 11 2000 9:30 PM

The Protestant Presidency

Why Jews, Mormons, and Catholics still can't get elected president. 

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M oney handicaps non-Protestant candidates. Catholics, Mormons, and Jews are less networked than Protestant candidates. (The Kennedys are the exception.) Dukakis raised millions from the Greek-American community but lacked access to the old-line and corporate cash that fed George Bush. George W. Bush got the nod over the Catholic governors in part because he could raise millions more than they could.

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The presidential monopoly also continues because of the style of religion in American politics favors Protestants. Americans demand public professions of faith from their presidential candidates. Religion serves as a proxy for morality. As the wall between church and state has crumbled, candidates have felt more obliged to discuss their religion. Such God talk never occurred a generation ago. "It was inconceivable that Nixon or Eisenhower would talk about their personal religion, but it is becoming de rigueur that a candidate do that today," says Notre Dame history professor John McGreevy.

This religious revelation benefits Protestants. Protestantism is America's normal religion, practiced by 60 percent of the population. Americans are more familiar with Protestant language and concepts than Jewish or Catholic ones.

More important, profession of faith is itself a Protestant idea. The foundation of evangelical Protestantism is "testimony" about your discovery of Christ. Such public testimony is anathema to Jews and Catholics, who almost never talk about their personal relationships with God. Protestantism is individualistic, while Judaism and Catholicism are communal. A Protestant presidential candidate can speak about her beliefs in personal terms without seeming to impose them on others. Protestantism is an individualist faith fit for an individualistic culture. But Catholicism and Judaism are "we" religions. Protestant language tends to be personal and nonjudgmental. Catholic language, by contrast, insists on absolute communal standards.

Catholic and Jewish candidates must choose either of two approaches. One is to avoid talking about their faith. Dukakis didn't even nod at our civic religion. He would have lost anyway, but his relentless secularism undoubtedly cost him votes. Bill Bradley, though a Protestant, is hurting his campaign by rejecting religious talk. Black voters, who tend to be religious, are a core Democratic constituency, and Gore is wooing them by riffing constantly about his religious journey. Political analysts say that one reason Bradley may be polling so poorly among blacks is that he refuses to discuss his faith.

The other choice for Catholic and Jewish candidates is to speak of their faith and hope it works. Some Catholics, notably Pat Buchanan, have alienated voters with coercive, collective rhetoric. "A Catholic can only get elected president by talking like a Protestant," says John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute.

By itself, none of the obstacles to a Catholic or Jewish president is insurmountable. But collectively, they block most potential candidates from even considering a run, and they cripple those who make the attempt. Democrats would have to find a fairly conservative Catholic or Jew, who's not from the Northeast, who is pro-choice but also publicly religious, who is comfortable talking about personal faith, and who is connected to lots of cash. Republicans would have to find a well-connected Catholic who can thrill Southern evangelicals with his conservatism but won't scare away moderates with his strong pro-life views. Good luck!

There is a final way a non-Protestant could become president. Either party might name a Catholic, Jewish, or Mormon vice presidential candidate. After eight years as second fiddle, a Catholic veep would be well-positioned for a presidential run. But that backdoor to the White House may be the only door open to Catholics, Jews, and Mormons for some time.  

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