Bush, the former Florida governor, warned Iowans against mixing politics and religion. "I go to church to have my faith nourished, to have my faith challenged. That's why I go to Mass. I don't go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics," he said bluntly.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who often pounces on any sign of anti-Catholic bias, was quick to dredge up Vatican mistakes from past centuries, hinting at past treatment of Galileo. "The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science," he said. "And I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we're good at, which is theology and morality."
For some liberals, there was a clear opening to pay back Republicans by tweaking them on this break with the leader of their church. Many still chafe over GOP encouragement for the archconservative bishop of St. Louis who wanted to deny communion to Sen. John Kerry in 2004 when he was the first Catholic nominee for president since Kennedy.
This is not the way that Kennedy wanted Catholics in politics to operate. The political world was quite different in 1960. Then, there were only nine other Catholics in the Senate; today, there are 26, with 138 in the House. Then, there was a token Catholic on the Supreme Court; today, six of the nine justices are Catholic, and the Court includes not a single Protestant. Then, only one Catholic had ever won a major party nomination for president or vice president; today, the vice president is Catholic after an election in which both vice presidential nominees were Catholic.
None of that could have been foreseen when Kennedy gave perhaps the most important campaign speech of the post-World War II era. That was his address to the Houston Ministerial on Sept. 12, 1960.
"I believe," said Kennedy, "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."
He added, "I believe in an America ... where no public official either requests of accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope ..." And, later, he said, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me."
Today, it would be tough for any Republican to give such a speech in Iowa, where evangelical groups—often allied with conservative Catholics—demand a level of public religiosity that Kennedy would never recognize. That is what made Bush's comments in Iowa intriguing. For they could have been said by Kennedy.