Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY AND
AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
A View from the Polls

JOHN C. GREEN

THE REELECTION OF President George W. Bush in 2004 led many Americans to rediscover the political relevance of religion.1 To some people, Bush’s strong support from religious voters—especially his fellow Protestants—was deeply troubling. Thus, they might well have appreciated the following campaign appeal:

I believe it would be tragic—and I repeat, tragic—not only for the
United States at home but for the picture of the United States pres-
ence abroad, if this election were determined primarily, or even sub-
stantially, on religious grounds.2

However, this appeal was not issued in the 2004 election but in the 1960 campaign, and it came not from a Bush critic but from a Protestant predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, the 1960 Republican presidential nominee.3 A better-known statement to this effect came from the 1960 Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy, in response to concerns about his Catholic faith. After noting that he was not “the Catholic candidate for President” but rather the Democratic Party’s candidate “who happens also to be Catholic,” he warned:

If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost
their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then
it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics
and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in
the eyes of our own people.4

Both Nixon’s and Kennedy’s 1960 statements pointed to the perils of faith-based politics, in this case, the long-standing tensions between Protestants and Catholics. But these concerns did not prevent either candidate from pursuing religious voters or benefiting from their ballots in the close contest. And this pursuit of faith-based votes had some promising

-46-

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