|Thomas Nast Cartoon, c. 1900|
This post is more an observation than an analysis (in part because I feel that a number of my fellow bloggers would have more interesting things to say on this subject than I).
When Mitt Romney announced on Saturday that his running mate would be Wisconsin Congressperson Paul Ryan, remarkably little was made of a pretty stunning fact: for the first time in U.S. history, a major party will nominate a Presidential and a Vice Presidential candidate neither of whom is a Protestant.
Just as Barack Obama’s nomination and victory in 2008, while hardly ushering in a post-racial America, indicated how much American racial attitudes have changed, the Republican Party’s decision to nominate a Mormon for President and a Catholic for Vice President is an indication of enormous changes that have taken place in religious attitudes in the last half century or so.
But while Obama’s status as the first African American major party presidential nominee–and later President–received endless comment and analysis, the absence of Protestants from the 2012 GOP ticket will, I think receive much less.* And the fact that it’s not that surprising, that Romney’s putting a Catholic on the ticket is simply no big deal (just as Obama’s having done so was not), underscores how great the changes in religious attitudes have been.
Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were both powerful forces in the American past (as the Thomas Nast cartoon above rather poisonously reminds us), though both have been on the wane for decades. That they are so relatively absent today from a party whose base consists largely of voters whose Evangelical Protestantism is a critical part of their political identity is particularly interesting. In a way the Ryan choice underscores how little anti-Mormonism became a factor within the GOP primary race this year: it appears to have been much more important for Romney to establish his ideological bona fides with party conservatives than to establish his religio-cultural bona fides with party Evangelicals (two groups with a lot of overlap, it should be said). And anti-Catholicism has long been a spent force on the U.S. right, as the composition of the Supreme Court (which, also, has no Protestant on it for the first time in US history) underscores: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy are all Catholics.
While there are many continuities in America’s culture wars, there’s no question that the battlelines have shifted over the decades.
* Especially if he’s elected President, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will get lots of play, but not, I think, as indicating vast changes in American attitudes, as Obama’s election as an African American was frequently said to indicate.