Respecting Religion: Can politicians learn the language of churchgoers?

Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Catholic bishops of the United States last spring, articulated a challenge to contemporary liberalism, saying, “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.... To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.” The pope was not advocating a union of church and state. He was, instead, insisting that religion makes claims upon a believer’s entire life—public views as well as private feelings—and that arguments to the contrary are evidence of a kind of intellectual sloth or a superficial faith.

Kennedy’s Wall of Privacy

The idea that religion is strictly a private matter entered popular political thought in 1960. John F. Kennedy needed to put to rest some voters’ doubts about his Catholicism, so he gave a major address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office,” Kennedy proclaimed. His Houston speech had a specific and immediate goal: Kennedy wanted to assure Protestants that his Catholicism was nothing they needed to worry about, because it did not appear to worry him. Catholicism was something that happened to him, like Jackie being born a brunette, more a turn of fate than an act of faith. Kennedy went to Mass on Sunday, but he was not going to let his Catholicism affect his views. It tells you something about the high degree of anti-Catholic prejudice in 1960 that a group of ministers found such sentiments reassuring. Most of all, Kennedy wanted to change the subject. As he said throughout the campaign, he wanted to get past such questions so he could address the “real issues.”


As short-term politics, the Houston speech was brilliant even though it was demonstrably false: Catholicism bore a thoroughly public character in 1960. The vibrant culture of the Catholic ghetto was still a reality. In some cities, whole neighborhoods were identified by the name of the local parish. Ethnic and religious sensibilities alike were celebrated on saints’ days with Masses and street festivals or parades. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had concluded his very popular program “Life Is Worth Living” in 1957, but he would return to the airwaves in 1961. Catholic schools nurtured a Catholic culture among the young, while the Catholic press sustained that culture among adults.

This vibrant Catholic culture was not Kennedy’s. His ghetto was the intellectual ghetto of Harvard, where religion was a thing never discussed at cocktail parties and little studied at the library, and so more easily dismissed as “private.”

The political issues that would dominate the 1960s gave the lie to the idea that religion was a merely private affair. The civil rights movement was not only led by clerics, it was first and foremost a moral and religious vision. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence was rooted in his specifically Christian belief in the redemptive power of suffering, which is not an ethical claim but a dogmatic one based on Christian teaching on the crucifixion. And in 1960 the people invoking “privacy” in the juridical sense as freedom from government interference were the segregationists.

The politics of the Vietnam War were fought in explicitly moral terms by both sides. Defenders of the war, including liberal defenders at its beginning, saw the war as part of a worldwide struggle against totalitarian Communism, a noble fight if ever there was one. As the war dragged on, critics emerged. At first they challenged the way in which the war was being fought—for example, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and the use of napalm. The criticism by liberals was perfectly compatible with the church’s jus in bello (just methods for fighting war) concerns articulated in classical just war theory, although they usually did not recognize their arguments as such. Over time the rationale for the war and the improbability of success became focal points of criticism, again fitting clearly in the jus ad bellum (moral deliberations before going to war) requirements of just war theory.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade strengthened Kennedy’s wall of privacy. Faced with a determined and effective campaign by pro-abortion groups, Catholic Democrats rushed to abandon their previous pro-life stances. (Among the proud exceptions was Connecticut’s Governor Ella Grasso, the first woman elected governor in her own right, who remained staunchly pro-life, much to the dismay of her feminist champions.) The list of Democratic politicians who have flipped on abortion is long and includes Edward Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore Jr., Dennis Kucinich and Joseph Biden, to name but a few. Most invoked some variation of the argument that you cannot legislate morality and that religion is private, even though they had supported the civil rights movement, which was a very explicit legislation of morality, defended in explicitly religious and moral terms.

The problem for the Democrats was not merely Roe but the language with which they defended Roe. They came to embrace a view of liberalism that bordered on libertarianism, the idea that personal autonomy should recognize no impediment, moral or otherwise. If you “can’t legislate morality,” then it is difficult to defend antipoverty programs or universal health insurance on moral grounds, so Democrats developed an amoral, technocratic language that rang hollow in the ears of religiously motivated voters, especially Catholics. Slowly but surely, the Democrats came to be seen as the party of irreligion. Most importantly, they lost the ability to articulate a moral vision for the nation.

Kerry Failed to Attract Religious Voters

In 2004, the Democratic Party nominated another Catholic Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry. His campaign did little in the way of outreach to Catholic voters, and after some prominent conservative bishops said that Kerry could not receive Communion in their dioceses, Kerry was reluctant to get into a public spat with the hierarchs. (Notably, neither the Archbishop of Boston, where Kerry lived, nor the Archbishop of Washington, where Kerry worked, issued such blanket prohibitions on his reception of Communion.)

During one of the presidential debates, Kerry gave a thoroughly convoluted reply to a question about abortion. And at no time in his campaign did he articulate the kind of sweeping moral vision for the nation that would move the electorate toward his candidacy. He supported some good policies and suggested programs that would have genuinely helped the poor. But, as was sometimes the case with John Kennedy, voters had the impression that what Kerry really cared about was getting the best table at a nice restaurant. Kerry lost for a variety of reasons, but his inability to appeal to religiously motivated voters extended the narrative that the Democrats were the party of unbelief. Had he reversed, rather than confirmed, that narrative, Kerry surely would have gotten the 117,000 votes he needed to win in Ohio.

The libertarian impulses of contemporary liberalism blend easily with the cultural contours of a consumer society. Go into any supermarket and you will find a row, 30 feet long, with nothing but hair-care products. The television clicker gives even the most slovenly a sense of protean authority over the world of entertainment. A personal or private “lifestyle” became a cultural talisman, nurtured by powerful economic interests. On this point Pope Benedict has posed the question: how does the church evangelize in a culture marked by such relativism? How does the church proclaim the absolute and transcendent truth of the Gospel in a society in which consumer choice has put a pathetic, materialistic “id” into most people’s identity?

Toward a Public, Moral Vision

The Democratic Party is not in the evangelization business. But it needs to ask some important questions of itself. If you want to increase taxes, you had better give a convincing moral justification for why people should support having less take-home pay each week. If you want to bring the troops home from Iraq, you had better be able to demonstrate how an American withdrawal will not increase the chaos in such a vital part of the world. If you want to bridge the racial divides that still separate Americans from one another, you had better possess the kind of religious fervor Dr. King displayed. Such issues demand that Democrats articulate a public and moral vision for the nation.

And if you want to win the votes of churchgoers, you had better not insult religion, and the views it inspires, as an enemy of progress and enlightenment. In the United States, where most voters are churchgoers, if you want to win the next election, you need to learn to speak the language of churchgoers. That language does not recognize religion as a strictly private matter. That language is completely at odds with the libertarian sensibilities of some liberals. And that language speaks of a hunger in the human heart, the “better angels of our nature” as Lincoln put it; however difficult it is for politicians to articulate that language, voters are right to insist that they do so.

Churchgoers wrestle all the time with how their faith influences their lives, how it affects their relationships with their families, their responsibilities as spouses and parents, their status as workers or employers, and even their political positions. It is time for Democratic politicians to begin to wrestle too. Setting aside the fact that it is the only intellectually honest way to proceed, it is also the only way to win.

Listen to Michael Sean Winters and Matt Malone analyze the first presidential debate.

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Elena Worrall
11 years 11 months ago
Just curious. Why this article is aimed at the Democrats exclusively? Is the assumption that Republicans have appropriate respect for religion, or is it that they are undeserving of any consideration at all in the electoral process?
11 years 11 months ago
Wondeful analysis of Kennedy and his background of Faith.It is difficult to credit that the Author is usually limited to bending logic in defense of Obama.But top marks here.The reality of Faith is a major determining factor in many areas of life and as you show very much so in Politics.The fact that Kerry had in many ways a strong and intelligent faith and was also an honourable man was no match for George Bush who was not uncomfortable with Faith.Obama has less truly Christian conviction than Kerry but does not underestimate the value of Faith and the need to transmit it.
11 years 11 months ago
"Believe this good news" was Jesus' keynote (Mk 1:17); what "good news"? That the Kingdom of God is within. The history of the Catholic Church has so often been wasted in making judgements as to the conditions of others' souls. We should rather spend more time seeing the good within everyone rather than the bad. Let God be the judge. Get off JFK's back. Would you have preferred Nixon in '60?


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