Too bad Barack Obama isn’t a Muslim

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The first U.S. visit by Pope Francis made clear that most Americans have finally sat aside anti-Catholic prejudice, a process that began decades ago.

John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, knew what he was getting into when he began his 1960 presidential bid. Before him, only one Catholic, former New York Gov. Al Smith, had been a presidential nominee for a major U.S. political party. Smith’s 1928 campaign fractured under rumors that he’d construct a tunnel connecting the Vatican to the White House or that he’d amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the national religion. That year Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover, raised a Quaker, was elevated above Smith and into the White House.

It was due to this history, I believe, that Kennedy chose to take his candidacy to the states and people least likely to support a Catholic. He went, for instance, to West Virginia, where Catholics were less than 4 percent of registered voters. And when his campaign initially floundered there, Kennedy said this:

“Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can be elected to the Israeli parliament — but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States? Are we going to admit to the world — worse still, are we going to admit to ourselves — that one-third of the American people is forever barred from the White House?”

A group of 150 Protestant ministers still claimed Kennedy was under the control of the church, and demanded he disavow the Catholicism’s teachings if he planned to pursue the presidency. Instead of ignoring or deflecting the charge, Kennedy ran directly to it, addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. That speech contains some of the most remembered and quoted words by a presidential candidate.

… I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. …

Pope Francis visits with President Barack Obama during an arrival ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, September 23, 2015.
Pope Francis visits with President Barack Obama during an arrival ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. (Nikki Kahni/Washington Post/NTS)

While not giving credence to scenarios of possible religious conflict, Kennedy stated flatly and simply that if the “office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest” he would resign, and that he hoped “any conscientious public servant would do the same.”

It’s difficult to imagine the Catholics in the 2016 contest — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Martin O’Malley and, possibly, Joe Biden — suffering the same level of scrutiny. But during Kennedy’s time, non-Catholics were often suspicious and fearful of Catholics and vice versa — one of the key reasons so many Catholic-based schools and hospitals were developed.

This was especially true in the South, where I grew up and practicing Catholics were few, even during the 1970s and 80s. I remember Sunday school classes at our Protestant church that discussed Catholicism, mostly to note practitioners had it wrong because “no one needs a broker to speak to or hear from God.”

Although Kennedy’s era included neither Internet or cable news networks, it is estimated that more than 20 million American homes received anti-Catholic pieces and missives. The 1960 “Reformation Sunday” services by clergy affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals provided anti-Kennedy sentiment, and the Southern Baptist Convention denounced Kennedy’s candidacy solely due to his religion.

So, as most politically-minded folks opined whether or not Pope Francis would discuss opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage during his visit in D.C., or whether his calls to address Climate Change would be met with opposition, my mind was focused on just how much the national sentiment has changed — at least toward Catholics.

I was awe struck by Pope Francis’ first step on American soil, and his welcome by the Obama family. Watching the two men on stage at the White House ceremony, my thoughts lingered on the recent Newsweek magazine cover that questioned the Pope’s faith as well as the numerous and ongoing assertions that President Barack Obama only pretends to be a follower of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant Christian denomination.

Throughout his candidacy as well as his presidency, Obama’s critics have attempted to paint him as anything other than American. Conspiracy theories regarding his birth certificate as well as his faith have persisted despite all evidence to the contrary. The 2016 presidential campaign, dominated by a massive slate of GOP candidates, has escalated the rhetoric as the pack competes for support from a perceived party base and national media attention.

But watching Pope Francis speak in Washington and New York, I can’t help but lament that Obama isn’t a Muslim. Perhaps, if he was, we could start to map a path beyond prejudice and away from fear. Maybe we could start to have a more honest and open conversation, one that acknowledges radicals exist in all religious sects.

Maybe, if Obama was a Muslim, we could get on with the business of selecting the best leader for the country, instead of the one that most looks and behaves like us.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on September 27, 2015. Photo credit: Nikki Kahni/Washington Post/NTS