The creation and success of ECT was made possible due to a larger shift in evangelical perceptions of Catholicism that had occurred over the course of about sixty years. For me, nothing captures this shift better than the about-face reflected in two Christianity Today editorials addressing the two Roman Catholic presidential candidates, John Kennedy and John Kerry. While the first editorial warns evangelical voters of the candidate’s Catholic faith, the second laments that his faith isn’t strong enough.
When John F. Kennedy announced his run for President of the United States on January 2, 1960, he thrust into the political spotlight something that proved to be as controversial as any policy position, namely, his Catholicism. For many evangelical Christians at the time, this fact alone rendered him a problematic candidate for the office of the presidency.
By the time Kennedy ran for president, there was in place a long history of negative sentiment toward Catholicism among evangelical Protestants in the States. A.J. Gordon, a Baptist who lived from 1836-1895 and founded the evangelical institutions that would become Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, once claimed, “It is Satan who is the real Pope, and his subordinate demons are the real cardinals.” Bible teacher Donald Barnhouse (1895-1960) stated in his commentary on Revelation, “in the seventeenth chapter of Revelation God speaks of religious Babylon and identifies it with the Roman ecclesiastical system.” I could go on (and Bill Shea does in his work The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America [Oxford, 2004]). As Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College aptly summarizes, “It would not be hard to compile a long list from across multiple nations and centuries of self-identified evangelicals attacking Catholicism.”
So it comes as no surprise that when Kennedy became the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Christianity Today published an editorial warning their evangelical voters of Kennedy’s Catholicism. In particular, the magazine expressed concern over Kennedy’s potential first allegiance to the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy rather than serving the American cause. As the editorial warned, the Vatican “does all in its power to control the government of nations.”
But JFK was no poster-boy Catholic. Kennedy went to great lengths to show his independence from the authority of the Church; as he famously stated at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.” Kennedy’s distancing of himself from the Catholic Church helped quell the fears of many evangelical voters, and by a very small margin, Kennedy won the election over Richard Nixon.
Now fast forward to 2004 and the presidential campaign of John Kerry. Once again Christianity Today issues an editorial addressing Kerry’s Catholicism. And once again it contains a warning. But this time rather than warning evangelical voters of Kerry’s potential adherence to the authority of the Catholic Church, the editorial warned evangelical voters of Kerry’s failure to adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church. In an about-face from the 1960 editorial, the 2004 editorial asserted that Catholic Church officials should “form the consciences of their members—including, and especially, politicians.” And as it turns out, it was because Kerry distanced himself from the Catholic hierarchy that he lost a number of evangelical voters.
What happened between the presidential campaigns of Kennedy and Kerry that led to such a positive shift in the evangelical perception of Catholicism in America – a shift that has only become stronger since the time of Kerry? I hope to offer some reflections in the coming posts.
Guest Author: Charles Raith II is Director of the Paradosis Center for Theology and Scripture and Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at John Brown University. His research interests include medieval and Reformation era theology, scriptural interpretation, and ecumenism. He is author of Aquinas and Calvin on Romans: God’s Justification and Our Participation (Oxford, 2014) and is currently co-authoring the book Ecumenism: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark).