Kerry the Catholic

Andrew Gumbel is the Los Angeles correspondent for the Independent of London.

“What can I say, John Kerry is an equivocal guy,” retired Presbyterian minister Dana Smith said last week in Arizona. That has not stopped Smith’s grass-roots campaign efforts on behalf of the Kerry-Edwards ticket, but it hasn’t exactly gladdened him either. When I asked him what impression the Kerry style probably would have on undecided voters in his part of the country, he replied: “Not much.”

Kerry has a problem. Something is preventing him from connecting with those crucial last few voters and converting his strong debate performances into a clear-cut lead over President Bush in the polls. The Republicans like to characterize him as a flip-flopper, but that is not quite the point. All politicians flip-flop, including the president.

The difference between the candidates is, rather, one of mentalities, of intellectual and religious culture. Although it is not fashionable to say so, this election cuts straight down the same Protestant-Catholic divide that so often has been a fault line in U.S. political history.


Bush and Kerry do not just hold divergent views on where the country and the world are headed. They have radically different notions of truth, knowledge and the relationship between man and God. All that has left an unmistakable stamp on their politics.

If the president often seems so much more certain of himself, it is because, as an evangelical Protestant, he sees the truth as something concrete that is revealed through a direct personal bond with Jesus Christ.

If Kerry seems more questioning, it is because, as a Catholic, he sees the truth as something wrapped in divine mystery, something to be approached with caution and humility, if indeed it is ultimately knowable at all.

In the evangelical Protestant mind, attaining the approval and support of the Almighty is a matter of faith alone.

To a Catholic, it is a far less certain process, requiring humility and forbearance in the face of human frailty. Kerry’s theology teaches him, in fact, that faith on its own is meaningless; it is by his acts that a man should be judged. As Kerry put it in the third presidential debate, quoting the Epistle of St. James, faith without works is dead.

Why should any of this matter? It matters because Catholics, for all the progress and social integration of the last 150 years, are still outsider figures in U.S. politics. They no longer are scapegoated by nativist gangs as they were during the great immigration waves of the 19th century. They no longer are held responsible for big-city corruption and resented by rural Protestants, as they were in the heyday of Tammany Hall and the other urban political machines. They no longer are deemed unelectable, as they were when Al Smith ran for president in 1928.


Still, a vestige of all these historical struggles lives on, as a matter of political culture if not directly one of religion. Kerry is not just a Catholic. He is a Catholic from a big East Coast city and something of an intellectual to boot.

Americans, especially in the Protestant heartlands of the South and parts of the West, tend to like their politics simple, straightforward, unwavering. They don’t want to be lectured by some egghead, and they don’t want to be told that the world is any more complicated than the moral schematics of a western.

Kerry sees tentativeness as a virtue. In his autobiography, “A Call to Serve,” he asserts the existence of absolute standards of right and wrong but sees them as anything but simple. “They may not always be that clear,” he writes. “ ... It is our duty to honor them as best we can.”

Such equivocation and appreciation of complexity have always been reviled by a certain segment of the American public. As the 19th century revivalist Dwight L. Moody put it: “When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell!”

One of the most telling moments of the campaign came during Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, when he chastised Bush for the repeated insinuations -- made directly and through various surrogates -- that God had chosen him and guided him through his most crucial life-and-death decisions. Kerry countered: “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”

Although Kerry made a powerful point about the arrogance of the Bush White House, I would guess many American Protestants are perfectly comfortable with the notion that God is on their president’s side -- by extension, on their side too. After all, if God is not on America’s side, whose side is he on? Al Qaeda’s?


Likewise, the Protestant tradition has no problem with Bush wearing his religion on his sleeve. If anything, Kerry’s shyness on the topic has done him damage. For a long time, the perception was that his reluctance to talk about religion indicated an absence of faith. And it did not help that certain conservative bishops said they would refuse him Communion because of his pro-choice stance on abortion. Only recently has the public learned that he once contemplated the priesthood, that he attends Mass and that he always travels with a rosary, a prayer book and a medal of St. Christopher.

How far we have traveled in 44 years: In 1960, John F. Kennedy almost failed to be elected because he was deemed too Catholic and therefore susceptible to political interference from the Vatican. In 2004, John F. Kerry may fail to be elected because he is deemed not religious enough.