One small step for the Republican Party, one giant leap for religious plurality.
In a marked generational shift six of the 17 “major” 2016 Republican presidential candidates are Catholic, including top tier candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Rick Santorum are also Catholic*.
The one Catholic elected president, John F. Kennedy, and the two other major party nominees who were Catholic, Al Smith and John Kerry, were Democrats. Kennedy faced vociferous criticism and attacks over his faith, ultimately facing them head on in his remarkable speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Among the factors producing this 2016 field is the general diminishment of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. 1960 America viewed Catholicism and Catholics with a degree of suspicion and wariness almost unimaginable today. Although hardly leading the way in acceptance of religious diversity, the 2016 Republican Party has made its own strides in this journey and reflects the more religiously pluralistic America that exists today. In part those strides also reflect the absorption of “Reagan Democrats” into the party, with many of them Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans who brought their Catholicism into the Party.
The Republican Party took a major step toward religious plurality in 2012, selecting Mitt Romney as its nominee. Romney’s Mormon church is less integrated into America than the Catholic Church, and viewed more skeptically by many, but Romney’s faith appeared to generate little significant opposition in his party. Similarly, the Catholicism of its 2016 presidential candidates has drawn little notice or hostility and there is a reasonable chance that the Republican Party will have its first Catholic nominee.
* An attentive reader accurately notes that John Kasich was raised Catholic, but now attends an Anglican church.