Religion and Politics

We were sorting through boxes of saved stuff recently and unearthed a box of “Life” and “Look” magazines from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It was not a complete archive of issues from those three decades. There were just a handful of copies from 1960 through 1985. The contents of the box smelled old and musty as do most boxes of paper stored in a basement storage room. I nearly dropped the whole box into a nearby garbage bag. Then I reconsidered thinking that these publications might be worth rereading after 40 years of life.

My journey through the history of my youth began with the July 4, 1960, issue of “Life,” a special issue focused on US politics.

The first thing I noticed was how magazines have changed. “Life” in 1960 was nearly 11 inches wide and 14 inches high. The font on the pages is about 8 points. While some articles are mostly pictures and short captions, the main articles are not. Many are six or seven pages long and cover subjects in depth. The articles were written entirely by staff writers and only advertisements were written by corporate copywriters.

The article entitled “The religion issue: An un-American Heritage” caught my attention. This was the summer before the presidential election in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. His religion was a major issue in that election. I can remember, as a 10 year old, overhearing adults talk about how dangerous it would be to have a Catholic president. The Pope, these concerned grownups suggested, would soon be controlling the Oval Office. This little Lutheran, who had been told by her Catholic cousins that the devil lived in the basement of the Catholic church, thought that sounded like a frightening possibility. My Catholic friends seemed puzzled by the concern.

Obviously, the Catholicism did not become the official religion of the United States, nor as there any evidence that the Pope had a hot line to the White House during JFK’s presidency. Our fears seem to have been misplaced.

The article in “Life” presents a history of religion and politics starting with the first colonists. The Puritans who first settled in Massachusetts sought escape from their own religious persecution, but did not grant religious freedom to others. They quickly set up a theocracy not a democracy. Their Protestant religion and their government sought to remove all vestiges of the Roman church from Christianity and the colonies. The New York colony made Catholics give up their arms and pay bonds to guarantee their good behavior. Connecticut forbade them office or the right to vote and removed them from the protection of the law. New Hampshire required Catholics to swear an oath against Rome. Even in liberal, Quaker Pennsylvania, members of the Catholic faith were disarmed and required to pay extra taxes. Quakers themselves were discriminated against in other colonies as were many smaller Protestant denominations.

For a few short years after the Revolutionary War (won with the aid of the French who were for the most part Catholic) everyone seemed to get along. Religious freedom was added in the Bill of Rights. Then in the early 1800s the country was flooded with immigrants fleeing poverty in Ireland and politics in the German Rhineland. Almost all of these newcomers were Catholic. By 1830 the number of Catholics in the US had multiplied almost tenfold. These new immigrants competed with American-born citizens for jobs, and again their religion became the focus of fear. These new fears of a Papist takeover of America spawned a political phenomenon called “nativism.” These groups, called “Know Nothings” because members would reveal nothing about their secret societies, advocated that Catholic immigration should be stopped and those already here should be barred from voting or holding public office. They could not, it was argued, be loyal Americans and loyal Catholics. Following the Civil war, nativist groups moved on to targeting Jews as the next religious threat to America.

Kennedy’s election in 1960 created a spirit of hope. All our problems weren’t solved but it seemed like the political intolerance which permeated our country during the McCarthy era of the 1950s seemed to be waning.

It is sad that in 2015, fifty-five years later, we have a candidate for the presidency who proposes that citizens should be disqualified from serving as our president because of their religion. Pundits defending of the remarks by Dr. Ben Carlson against a Moslem being president of this country use the same arguments once used against Catholics’ holding office.

On the subject of his Catholic religion, John F. Kennedy said, “I would think there is really only one issue involved in the whole question of a candidate’s religion. That is, does a candidate believe in the Constitution, does he believe in the First Amendment, does he believe in the separation of church and state? When the candidate gives his views on that question…I think the subject is exhausted.”

Apparently not.
Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


1 thought on “Religion and Politics

  1. Mel

    Janet, I enjoy your writing a great deal. This piece quickened my mind to a book I have been reading which is written by an Austrailian author, Christine A. Mallouhi, who married a Middle Eastern author. They are both Christians who have lived most of their married lives in Muslim countries. In her book, “Waging Peace on Islam” she attempts to destygmatize Islam and explain some of the sects and the history of militant Islam. I began reading this book in an effort to understand how, as a Christian, I might take steps to build bridges since, I live in a major urban area within walking distance to a Mosque, I have Muslim neighbors, one of my husband’s closest colleagues is Muslim and My children attend High Schools which host International students some of whom are Muslim. To date, all my experiences interfacing with folks from the Muslim faith have been positive. She approaches bridge building using the example of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is intense reading but, quite informative and she has been recognized by Sheiks and Al Jazeera television for her efforts to begin building bridges between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world.

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