How Far We’ve Come – Religious Diversity and the Republican Party

Last week, Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood before a principally Evangelical crowd at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to the Majority” gathering, detailing his conversion to Catholicism and his adoration of the sacraments:

“I converted to the Catholic Church—Christ came into my life a little earlier, but I converted to being Catholic in honor of my wife and because I believe in the blessed sacraments and they give me great comfort. On Easter Sabbath of 1995, I had lost an election in 1994 and found a total serenity and solace in the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] class, and converted to being a Catholic and it’s been an organizing part of my architecture, if you will, as a person and certainly as an elected official.”

Bush is not alone in his beliefs among the Republican presidential field. His fellow Catholics include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (also a convert), former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former New York Governor George Pataki and Senator Marco Rubio. Today, Catholics are the plurality in religious representation at the federal and gubernatorial levels.

With so many Catholics ascending to the highest ranks of public life, it seems untenable that just half a century ago, they were condemned as unfit for elected office. In 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) addressed a crowd of Evangelical pastors at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, pledging that his Catholic faith would not be a competing interest with his allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Following his speech, he fielded nearly 30 minutes of combative and utterly insulting questions masked as pleasantries (and some didn’t even bother disguising their disdain for him and his religion).

Romney Religion KennedyThen candidate John F. Kennedy, pictured addressing the Ministers’ Association of Greater Houston in 1960, had to explain away his Catholic faith. | AP
His appearance was meant to quell the fears of many Protestants that should he be elected president, Kennedy would maintain a greater loyalty to the Vatican instead of his fellow Americans. It ultimately worked, and Kennedy became America’s first Catholic president in its nearly 200-year history.

Fifty-five years later, Bush’s remarks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering signify a remarkable change in the American political climate, especially among conservatives.

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Here stood a former Episcopalian-turned-Catholic, unabashedly proclaiming his affinity for the sacraments and his love for his faith in front of an audience that probably has more than a few differences with his church.

But, instead of experiencing what Kennedy endured in 1960, where the Massachusetts senator was repeatedly forced to explain away his religion and justify his patriotism, Bush was received warmly for his convictions and celebrated for his record. He shared his successes in defending the sanctity of life from conception to death, how he lived his faith by putting those who suffer first and how he knew that religious freedom was a common imperative of all who believe.

Indubitably, Bush did what people of all religions are called to do – make courageous proclamations of faith in both word and deed, no matter the circumstances. That does not mean it is easy or politically expedient to do so. For this reason, the former Florida governor should be applauded for his commitment to his beliefs and his willingness to be truthful about them in front of any audience.

This certainly tells us a lot about Governor Bush, but it tells us just as much about the state of the conservative movement. While we know that American Catholics are becoming increasingly more conservative, we also understand that Evangelical Christians are a core component of the Republican electorate. And of course, the GOP wants to earn the trust and support from voters from all walks of life – from Jews to Buddhists to everyone in between. While Democrats might see this as a tough balancing act among conflicting ideologies, Republicans believe that the principles of limited government and individual freedom are meant for all.

christian vote 2012

After centuries of squabbling over dogmatic, doctrinal or faith differences, conservatives of all faith traditions are uniting to preserve our shared values and secure our constitutionally guaranteed religious liberties. In 2012, Republicans nominated a Mormon, Governor Mitt Romney, for president and a Catholic, Congressman Paul Ryan, for vice president. Despite their variances in religion with the nominees, Pew Forum estimates that 57 percent of Evangelicals voted for the Republican ticket, compared to just 42 percent for the Democrat ticket.

Perhaps this is because religious adherents see the modern Democratic Party as outwardly hostile toward those who are faithful, despite the fact that only 16 percent of all Americans profess to have “no religion” at all. Their insistence on moral relativism has further isolated them from the American mainstream that views the contemporary liberal as unable to recognize the concreteness of right and wrong. And so, the Republican Party will happily accept them all—together under a banner of religious freedom and tolerance for all.

Bush’s speech was a reminder of just how far we’ve come as a nation and also as a party. With a diverse slate of presidential candidates in 2016 (which is more than the all-white, largely senior citizen class of Democratic hopefuls can say), Republicans are proving that they’re actually living their commitment to diversity, not just talking about it. They’re promoting public servants from every walk of life who exemplify their shared values, not simply those who come from the same background or the same religious tradition.

In 2016, the party of diversity – and the tolerance necessary to maintain it– is the GOP.

Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, Members of Congress and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.