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The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Candidates’ Religion

September 28, 2012

by Amy Davis

This election season has seen the issue of religion surface again and again.  The Romney campaign has labeled President Obama as an attacker of religion.  Romney’s own faith has been a subject of debate as well.

But this is not a new development.  Religion has played a role in presidential campaigns for over 150 years.  John C. Fremont’s possible Catholicism was questioned in 1856 by Democrats: if he was elected, would the Pope rule the U.S.?   Al Smith suffered similar attacks in 1928.  Neither candidate was elected; their links to the Catholic Church were part of the reason for this.  The trend in America politics seems to have been (and may still be) one of fear of and discomfort with the religiously unfamiliar.

The Living Room Candidate can help teachers provide students with a more-recent look at this trend.  Kennedy’s Catholicism was also scrutinized in 1960.  For teachers interested in this topic, and for teachers interested in the history of presidential campaign television commercials, this website provides a poignant video.  This video depicts Kennedy defending his ability to lead the nation as a Catholic while honoring the doctrine of separation of church and state.  Allaying the deeply-embedded (and absurd) fears of Protestant America that the Pope would sail up the Potomac as a crowned monarch upon his election was one of the many reasons why Kennedy won in 1960.  This made him the first Catholic president in United States’ history.

JFK and Pope Paul VI, 1963

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