Tampa (Florida), Aug. 31: Four years after Americans made history by nominating the first black man as a major political party’s presidential candidate, they made history again last night by formalising the first presidential slate not to have a Protestant as presidential or vice-presidential nominee.
In the US, where religion is a major undercurrent in elections through the spread of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, notwithstanding the separation of church and state, a majority of Americans are Protestants. According to recent surveys, 52 per cent of Americans identify themselves as belonging to one or other Protestant church: that figure was as high as 60 per cent four decades ago.
Mitt Romney who accepted the Republican nomination for President last night at his party’s National Convention here, is a Mormon while his choice for Vice-President, Paul Ryan, is a Roman Catholic.
America has elected only one Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as President in 1960. His Catholicism was a major issue in the election with Protestants aggressively spreading the false rumour that JFK would take orders from the Pope if he went to the White House and that the US would have to surrender its sovereignty to the Vatican.
That is no longer the case, but Kennedy won only a fraction more of the popular vote than his opponent Richard Nixon in that election — 49.7 per cent against 49.5 per cent — although his Catholic faith was not the sole reason for the narrow lead.
However, because of the complex system that chooses US Presidents, Kennedy defeated Nixon with a more convincing margin in the final result in the nation’s electoral college.
Like Kennedy in 1960, Romney and Ryan are not defensive about their religious affiliations and have, instead, decided that they will advertise their faith in a positive way in the remaining weeks of their presidential campaign.
Romney said at the convention that when he was growing up in Michigan, his friends were more interested in what sport teams he backed rather than in what church he belonged to.
According to accounts in the mainstream media here, Romney insisted that the party convention’s most important segment at which he accepted his nomination last night should begin with a prayer by two Mormons, Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, who worked in Romney’s “ward” in Massachusetts when he was “stake president” several decades ago.
Mormons use “ward” to describe a parish and “stake president” is the equivalent of a bishop in other Christian denominations. In line with Ryan’s Catholic faith, the concluding prayer at the convention before it adjourned sine die shortly before midnight was conducted by the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
It is unlikely that the exclusion of a Protestant from the Republican high stakes or Romney’s Mormon faith and Ryan’s Catholicism would be decisive election issues in November beyond an undercurrent, especially in the conservative southern US states where religion has galvanised Republican voters, particularly when George W Bush was their candidate.
However, the Romney-Ryan campaign is taking no chances. Several speeches on a daily basis at the party convention extolled the virtues of Romney’s faith, his charity and his missionary work in Europe as a youth in the name of Jesus Christ.
Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, made it a point when she addressed the convention on Tuesday night to mention that she was born an Episcopalian and converted to Mormonism when she married Romney.
It would not have been lost on evangelical Republicans that in at the tightly-run Mormon community, Ann’s life would have been difficult if she had not converted. It is likely that some bigots will try to inflame passions in the remaining weeks of the campaign on the issue of declining Protestant fortunes.
The US Supreme Court no longer boasts of having even one Protestant justice. The high court comprises six Catholics and three Jews. Because only 49 per cent of Americans, according to one recent survey, are aware that Barack Obama is a Christian and another 17 per cent believe he is a Muslim, Romney’s Mormon faith may be less of an issue than doubts about Obama’s religion in this election as in 2008.
Abraham Lincoln refused to join any church formally, although he was a man of faith. But he made it a point to choose a Protestant as his running mate in both elections he contested.
In more recent years, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, is Greek Orthodox while John Kerry, the party’s candidate in 2004, is a Catholic. But both men chose Protestants as their vice-presidential candidates.
Dwight Eisenhower was a Jehovah’s Witness, but he later became a Protestant by embracing Presbyterianism.
The US has elected two Quaker Presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Quakers do not identify themselves as Protestants.
But all their Vice-Presidents belonged to Protestant churches.