“I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.” So said John F Kennedy on the presidential campaign trail in 1960. It was a time when being a Catholic could be hazardous in US public life.
As expected, Donald Trump on Saturday nominated Amy Coney Barrett as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement on the supreme court. Barrett has little judicial experience but one invaluable trait: a traditional Catholic, she is opposed to abortion.
Barrett’s nomination, and the hope that she will help shape politics for decades to come, reveals again the distorting role of the supreme court in US democracy. It reveals, too, the changing role of Catholicism in US life. It’s easier being a Catholic politician than it was in Kennedy’s day. But Catholics are often still not seen as people with a variety of views who happen to profess a particular faith. Rather, they are defined primarily by their views on abortion.
A politician’s faith inevitably bears on their politics. Equally, their political views shape their understanding of their faith. Whether or not Biden and Barrett are good Catholics is an issue for fellow Catholics. Politicians should be judged on their political views, public officials on their competence. Neither should be judged on the fact of their faith. Otherwise, we would barely have moved from the 1960s.
“I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me,” Kennedy observed. Amen.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist