The Protestant Presidency

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Feb. 11 2000 9:30 PM

The Protestant Presidency

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

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George W. Bush is a born-again Protestant who says Jesus Christ is the philosopher who most influenced him. John McCain is a born-again Protestant who testifies that his faith helped him survive a POW camp. Al Gore is a born-again Protestant who says he frequently asks himself "W.W.J.D?" And Bill Bradley is a Protestant who, though he refuses to discuss his faith, belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and evangelized his basketball teammates.

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The Protestant monopoly on this year's major presidential candidates may seem an aberration. John F. Kennedy's election supposedly cracked the religious wall in presidential politics, and the overt prejudice that barred Catholics, Jews, and Mormons from national elective politics has disappeared. Jews, who used to obsess about the first Jewish president, no longer think about the issue. Presidential campaigns have become as ecumenical as a Unitarian seder. Since JFK, candidates have been Mormon (Orrin Hatch), Jewish (Arlen Specter), Eastern Orthodox (Michael Dukakis), and Catholic (Ted and Bobby Kennedy, Bruce Babbitt, Pat Buchanan, and—surprise—Alan Keyes, among others).

The president on the TV show West Wing is even Catholic. But life is not imitating art. Though non-Protestants comprise at least 35 percent of the American population, Kennedy remains the only one ever elected president. And of the 14 major party nominees since Kennedy's death, only Michael Dukakis was not a Protestant. (Barry Goldwater's father was Jewish, though Goldwater was not, inspiring a famous.) And there are good reasons to believe that the Protestant monopoly will persist.

America has not returned to the bad old days of know-nothingism and anti-Semitism. The Protestant monopoly no longer stems from prejudice. Americans insist they would vote for a presidential candidate of almost any religious background. In 1937, 46 percent said they would vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 47 percent said they wouldn't. In 1999, 92 percent said they would vote for a Jew, and only 6 percent wouldn't. In 1958, 27 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic. In 1999, only 4 percent said they wouldn't. Though folks probably pretend to be more tolerant than they are, the virulent anti-Catholicism that cost Kennedy 2 million votes has vanished, as has most anti-Semitism. No one would dream of hinting that a Catholic president would take orders from the pope, as some did in 1960. Mario Cuomo says he "never even considered the possibility" of anti-Catholic prejudice when he was pondering a presidential run. Recent non-Protestant candidates didn't fail because of religion. Hatch was dreary. Specter was a pro-choice Republican in a pro-life party. Ted Kennedy never recovered from Chappaquiddick. Bobby Kennedy was murdered. Buchanan was too vitriolic.

The free pass does not extend to all religions. Seventeen percent of Americans won't vote for a Mormon, the same as in 1967, the last time Gallup surveyed about Mormons. Gallup does not poll about Islam or other religions, probably because not even optimists believe a Muslim could be elected president now. As for atheists, forget it. Only 49 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate—compared to 59 percent who would vote for a gay one.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

If prejudice isn't blocking a Catholic or Jewish presidency, why hasn't there been one lately? First, evangelicals are a huge obstacle to a non-Protestant Republican presidency. Evangelical Protestants comprise one-quarter of the population, they favor Republicans by 2-to-1, and they are concentrated in the Southern states that are the Republican base. "Given the strength of evangelicals and the concentration of the party in the South, it would be very difficult for a Catholic to get the Republican nomination for president," says Catholic University politics professor John White. This constituency is one reason why Bush—not a Northern Catholic such as John Engler of Michigan, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, George Pataki of New York, or Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania—is the Republican governor running for president.

Demography also damages the presidential prospects of Catholic and Jewish Democrats. Jews and Catholics populate the Northeast, but since the Dukakis debacle, the Democratic establishment has all but abandoned Northeasterners as serious presidential candidates, concluding that they are too liberal to succeed nationwide. This eliminates the most promising Jews and Catholics from presidential consideration. "The two easiest groups to elect president," says University of California, San Diego professor Sam Popkin, "are Northeastern Republicans and border state Democrats"—lefty Republicans and righty Democrats—virtually none of whom are Catholic or Jewish.

Abortion undermines Catholic presidential candidates. A Catholic candidate's abortion position, no matter what it is, would incite far more anger than the same position taken by a non-Catholic. Most Catholics are Democrats and are pro-life, but a pro-lifer can't win the Democratic nomination. (Witness the ostracism of former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey.) And a Democratic Catholic candidate who was pro-choice would be at odds with a noisy and powerful church hierarchy and might lose some of the Catholic vote on which Democrats depend.

A Republican Catholic would have to be pro-life, and that would bring its own difficulties. When a Protestant such as Bush says he opposes abortion, most Americans assume that he won't do much about it. If a Catholic pol said the same thing, voters might believe that he would act on it. In a general election, pro-choice but otherwise Republican voters would turn out heavily against a pro-life Catholic.

(Jewish candidates would be similarly lassoed by Israel. A Christian candidate's position on Israel hardly interests anyone. A Jewish candidate's position on Israel would polarize everyone who has even the slightest opinion about it. But there is no "Protestant" issue that could trap a Protestant candidate.)

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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.

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.