On Nov. 8, 1960, the presidency transformed forever. That evening, the American electorate propelled John F. Kennedy through the stained glass ceiling, granting him the dubious distinction of being the first Catholic president. As the ceiling shattered, so did the notion that the presidency was the property of Protestants.
In the administrations following Kennedy’s, the Oval Office began to represent the country’s growing religious diversity. As the tumultuous 1960s came to a close, Americans began to drift away from mainstream Protestantism and delved into a period of experimentation with alternate forms of Christianity. The elections of a Quaker, Richard Nixon, and of two “born-again” evangelicals, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, are reflective of this reality.
In 2012, at a time of intense religious polarization, our choices for president seem to mirror this growing religious diversity.
President Barack Obama, like a growing number of Americans—44 percent according to the New York Times—was pried from his youthful agnosticism by a conversion experience. For twenty years, he sat in the pews of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, ingesting his highly controversial form of black liberation theology. Since severing ties with Wright and his church, Obama has joined the swelling ranks of Americans who do not identify with any church, a category that Sarah Palin also belongs to.
Next we have the presumptive Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney’s family has deep roots in the Mormon faith, a uniquely American form of Christianity. Romney’s great-great-grandfather, Miles Romney, spent his entire life savings to come to America after being converted by Mormon missionaries. Almost since Mormonism’s inception, the Romney’s have been an inerasable part of the church’s history. Today, with Romney poised to take the mantle of the Republican Party in what most conservatives will say is the most important election in U.S. history. His faith is viewed with the same skepticism that Kennedy faced in that faithful 1960 race.
Last is Rick Santorum, who identifies as Catholic. Santorum may have suspended his campaign, but his popularity does not necessarily coincide with his Catholicism. Since Kennedy’s victory, Protestant paranoia of power-hungry Papacy has subsided. Now, 25 percent of Americans identify as Catholic. While the Vatican’s following is shrinking in America, Santorum’s brand of traditionalist Catholicism picked up steam as religious conservatism gained popularity with the rise of the born-again movement. It is ironic Santorum’s most fervent supporters do not come from the Catholic community; they are southern Evangelicals, who would have looked at him with extreme scrutiny just a few generations ago. While the paradox seems obvious, his conservative, religious values have gained support with a broader base of conservative, highly religious Christians.
The religious diversity within the presidential candidates may reflect a growing tolerance for all branches of Christianity. While 76 percent of Americans may identify as Christian, millions of believers, including our presidential candidates, seem to be further away from a consensus on Christianity than ever before.