From time to time during this election campaign, Barack Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy as the dashing new face of a revived Democratic Party. But it’s time to think more deeply about the comparison, and the way Obama mirrors Kennedy’s place in the larger American political narrative.
Kennedy’s great challenge was to lay the ghost of anti-Catholic bigotry in America, and make no mistake, anti-Catholicism was a significant presence in American society in 1960. Protestants—especially but not only conservative evangelical ones—continued to harbor profound uneasiness about the prospect of turning the country’s reins over to a member of the “Roman Church.”
At the time, there was no ethno-religious group more consequential to the success of the Democratic Party than Catholics, and for the party to refuse to nominate one of them whose time had come held promise of electoral disaster. But Kennedy needed to make clear—as he did in his famous speech to the Houston ministers (and they were not a friendly crowd)—that he would be his own and not his church’s man. And he had to declare his opposition to the two main issues on the Catholic agenda: public aid to parochial schools and a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
There was also the question of style. Kennedy needed to show that he was a different kind of American Catholic political leader—not the cigar-chomping urban Irish pol who relished sticking it to the Protestant Republican gentry, but someone who could outdo them all in upper-class polish and savoir-faire. Kennedy went to their schools—Choate and Harvard—and he even wrote prize-winning books. He was, to the naked eye, the anti-Al Smith (the Catholic New Yorker defeated for the presidency by Herbert Hoover in 1928).
If the crucible of Kennedy’s success was the urban politics of late-19th and early 20th centuries, the crucible of Obama’s is the civil rights movement. Like Kennedy, Obama came in on its heels, and with little of its baggage. Of mixed race and exotically raised, he is more distant from his ascribed group than Kennedy ever was (and is of truly modest origins), but like him he went to a fine prep school and made his way into the Ivy League.
If Kennedy had to show he wasn’t Smith, Obama has needed to make clear that he isn’t Jesse Jackson, the one other African American to make a plausible run at the Democratic nomination. Unlike Jackson, he is more at home in the suites than on the streets (though he has put in his time there), and he writes books that intellectuals admire.
Obama, like Kennedy, has had to put some distance between himself and the special concerns of his community. He has signaled that he will not be on the side of classic affirmative action, and apologies and reparations for past injustices to black people are not anywhere on his list of priorities. For all that, the barriers to presidential office remain high for him, as they did for Kennedy, and whatever history’s verdict on his Philadelphia speech, it pointed to an ongoing need to demonstrate his commitment to rise above “his people” and become everybody’s president.
His people do count politically. Like the Catholics of the middle of the last century, African Americans are the most dependable component of the Democratic coalition, and if they represent a much smaller portion of the voting public (a tenth rather than a quarter), the moment for their candidate cannot be snuffed out by party elders with impunity. Don’t think the superdelegates don’t know it.
What, then, of religion? For those who harbored anti-Catholic suspicions, what mattered most was to know that Kennedy wore his faith lightly—that he was an American first and a Catholic second.
When his campaign commenced, Obama’s religion seemed an incontestable plus. White Americans have always given black Americans credit for their strong faith commitments, and Obama seemed like the personification of the Democratic Party’s new interest in showing the country that it is as pro-religion as the GOP. He obliged by emphasizing the importance of religion in his life.
But now that his religion has been tied in the public mind to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it has become, like Kennedy’s, a problem for him to solve. However successfully he has solved it by divorcing himself from Wright this week, he risks drawing attention to the association whenever he again ventures publicly into the religious realm.
When, in his inaugural address, Kennedy pledged “that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own,” he spoke not out of his own faith tradition but as the exponent of an inclusive American civil religion. As his campaign moves forward, Obama will very likely do the same.