Jan. 19, 2012 -- Sometimes, history happens quietly, the accumulation of years of slow, subterranean change in the minds and hearts of men and women, in the society they shape together. Sometimes, we almost don't notice how astounding the change is.
The Republican Party is now choosing among a Mormon, two Roman Catholics, and a Southern Baptist for the presidency -- and the Baptist may be the longest shot for the nomination.
For anyone alive and aware 30 years ago and more, for anyone familiar with America's religious history, it's inspiring to witness this. Our history has been marked by religious bigotry, for sure, but also by the unique, propulsive American genius for religious pluralism.
"Unlike the other countries, this one/begins in houses," the poet Douglas Crase once wrote. Not churches, he meant. Not palaces. Not tribes or races or blood or languages or barracks. But in houses, where people met, and talked, and shared their hopes and ideas and dreams. Conversation made the country as much as money or force of arms. Maybe more.
Certainly, that conversation was severely restricted at first to white, property-owning, Protestant men. But the ideas coursing through their conversations in those houses were just too powerful, too corrosive, for the white guys to contain them. Our history is, in part, the story of that corrosion; our political debates are often reflections of how we feel about its velocity and direction.
So this year the Republicans are likely to choose a candidate whose faith would have disqualified him a generation ago, and made him the target of active discrimination a generation before that. (And even the Baptists were persecuted at the time of the Founding.) Look around the world; look how hard it is for most countries to achieve this. Oceans of blood have been spilled on every continent in the name of religious exclusivity; not here. Never here. We take it for granted. But we have only to look at Iraq, or Nigeria, or India, and shudder, to recognize how lucky we are here.
Of course, there's still a lot of religious bigotry in America. And there's an increasing gulf between those who espouse a particular religious faith and those who do not; between citizens who want the public square to be free of religious influence and those who want to see more religion in public life. The Tim Tebow phenomenon, and the visceral reactions to him among believers and non-believers both, showed that this rift may now be the most significant religious divide in American society. Would we ever elect an atheist president? Unimaginable. For now.
I have seen, in a museum, a flyer from the 1960 election, the election that put the first Catholic in the White House. It warned of the pernicious power the "pope of Rome, the Antichrist" would have if John F. Kennedy were elected, and I remember there were crude devil's horns drawn coming out of the head of Pope John XXIII, and little goat feet sticking out from his cassock.
My parents, Irish Catholics from the North Side of Chicago, used to tell their 10 children tales of that election, of the hate even they -- comfortable in the suburbs by then -- could sense in the rantings of the John Birch Society and other extremists. Even in our neighborhood. But it wasn't scary to their children. It was all so long ago to us. And to them.