Yesterday, as I read some of the news headlines on the interweb, I came across one that dealt with the endorsement that some evangelical voters gave to Rick Santorum. It's not terribly surprising that evangelicals rejected Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism and his supposed liberal tendencies. Of course, Romney may not know whether he's a conservative, liberal, or something totally different. The evangelical voters considered Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. The very fact that they chose Santorum shows a significant shift in American Protestant politics over the past few decades.
A major party has nominated a Roman Catholic for president three times. Each time, it's been the Democrats that have done so. The first Catholic to run for president was Al Smith of New York in 1928. He lost to Herbert Hoover, and those who lived through the Depression blame Hoover for that debacle to this day, but that's another story. Hoover won a landslide largely because a Republican was in office and the economy seemed to be booming. However, there was also the frequent assertion that the Democrats were the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." The 1920s was a period that saw the growth of the second Ku Klux Klan, and Catholics were one of the major groups that these nativists saw as damaging Americanism with their taking orders from Rome. There was concern that a Smith presidency would subordinate itself to the pope, not the Constitution.
Fast-forward just over thirty years. In 1960, another Catholic ran for president. The concern over a president having more allegiance to the Vatican than the US was a big concern for many Protestants. The candidate for president this time was John F. Kennedy. A 2007 article in Baptist History & Heritage by Ricky Floyd Dobbs examined the concern that conservative Baptists had regarding a Catholic running for president, using the Texas Baptist Standard as a case study. Kennedy won, and he is to date the only Catholic to become president. While some Americans would view him as a liberal, and his presidency was shortened by an assassins' bullet, most people would not argue that Kennedy put the concerns of the Vatican above those of America.
In 2004, John Kerry ran for president against the incumbent George W. Bush. His Catholicism was not the major issue, as the fear of terrorism seemed to be the overarching topic in this election. That was a general election, however, and evangelicals have tended to web themselves to the Republican Party in the last few decades. Most of the Republican candidates over time have been WASPs, with few women, minorities, and non-Protestants attempting a run. This year, evangelicals chose between Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry. Of the three, Perry would be the closest candidate to an evangelical. However, he's come across as less-than-presidential in debates and other public appearances. That leaves Santorum and Gingrich, both Catholics, as the best hope for pro-life, anti-Mormon evangelicals. While Romney's stand on abortion can be questioned, John Huntsman, another Mormon, seems to be solidly pro-life.
All of this goes to show the major change in Protestant attitudes toward Catholicism. Catholics are now considered more mainstream to evangelical voters. Mormons are not. Could this shift signal the election of a President Santorum? Not likely, but the change over time is nonetheless interesting.