Roman Catholicism and the 1960 Elections
Senator Paul Simon

(The following article is the manuscript of an address which Representative Simon delivered to a group of ministers from the Wausau, Wisconsin, area. In a year when the enemies of the Christian Church may have special reason to rejoice in the unhappy divisions that exist within Christendom, the Editors of The Cresset are happy to have the opportunity to associate themselves with the views expressed by Representative Simon.)

simonIn a sense I am a layman speaking to laymen. I am a layman in the field of theology, speaking to theologians on a subject that covers both theology and politics. You are laymen in the field of politics.

Since the topic really enters two spheres, I think it is only fair that you know some of my theological prejudices before we get directly into the political. Not only is this fair to you to do this, but I frankly relish the opportunity. I have never been asked to speak on this subject before and I have made a few observations that disturb me. If you disagree with me — as I am sure many of you will — you can dismiss what I have to say as the foolish ranting of an ignorant layman. But I hope that at least a few of you will be disturbed, and perhaps one in your midst will be disturbed to the point of helping to provide leadership.

My prejudices include the belief that the usual di­vision of what the world at large calls Christendom into Protestant and Roman Catholic (and perhaps Ortho­dox) is not a proper division. The real division is be­tween those who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and those who do not, between those who believe that the resurrection is a reality and those who do not, between those who believe in the literal truth of the Biblical accounts of Christ's life and those who do not. In such a basic division, we find ourselves on the same side as our Roman Catholic brethren.

I am prejudiced in that I find a much greater sense of affinity with those who accept the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, than with those who reject all or parts of these creeds. Here again, I find myself aligned with my Roman Catholic friends, for these three creeds are accepted by both Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

I am prejudiced since I am a son of the Reformation and as such I recall that the Reformation involved the rejection of tradition when that tradition conflicted with the truth. It was not a rejection of tradition be­cause it was tradition, but it was a re-examination in the light of revealed truth and a re-formation of beliefs on that basis. It is disturbingly clear that part of the tradition which much of modern Protestantism and much of modern Lutheranism has inherited is a tradi­tion of militant, emotional anti-Catholicism. It is overdue for the church of the Reformation to take a fresh look at this tradition in the light of truth. In the political field, the Democratic party is frequently accused of "continuing to run against Hoover" instead of the Republican party of today. There is some justice to this charge. But in the religious field, there is also some justice to the charge that Lutherans of to­day are "running against" sixteenth century Catholicism, rather than the Roman Catholic Church of today.

I am prejudiced in knowing that if I came to this meeting and delivered a bitter harangue against the Roman Catholic church, it probably would be received warmly. To give you the truth, as I see it, probably will mean leaving here today with fewer friends than when I came. Perhaps I underestimate my audience. I hope so. But I recall vividly too many instances when I have heard speakers — probably in all cases sincere — dis­tort the truth beyond recognition in an attack on the Roman Catholic church and you could sense in the audience reaction that this had "caught fire." This was what they wanted to hear. What people want to hear seldom is what they should hear.

I am prejudiced by the fact that my work takes me into frequent contact with members of all denominations and many faiths. It has given me the opportunity to examine Protestant literature about Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholic literature about Protestant groups. In almost all cases on both sides the material is a col­lection of half-truths, falsehoods, and bitterness. The only Protestant publication I have seen in a long time which has the air of objectivity and is scholarly is the recent publication by one of our clergy, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Riddle of Roman Catholicism. If you have not read this you should.

I am prejudiced by the fact that Luther and the church which bears his name owe much to the voices of the early leaders of the Catholic church. Augustine is the most obvious example. But there are many others. Recently the Roman Catholic church celebrated the festival of St. Ambrose. This is the Bishop of Milan who is quoted frequently and most favorably in the Augsburg Confession. Luther and his contemporaries found it spiritually profitable to listen to what Catholic leaders, living and dead, had said, and we should be following Luther's good example.

I am prejudiced by the fact that I believe the Bible to be the Word of God and since this is part of my be­lief I cannot reject Christ's message to me in John 17. The burden to be at one with my fellow Christians is not a burden I can cast from my shoulders. The young Indian student in the Calcutta airport was speaking to you as well as to me when he said recently in a casual conversation we had: "If for no other reason, I would not become a Christian because of the way you Christians talk about one another."

I am prejudiced by the fact that one of the names given to Satan in the Bible is "the accuser of our brethren." I cringe when I read it because I know that too often I have been guilty of being his tool. I would guess that this is a sin that you and I share. Too often pride has been our substitute for repentance. "Lord, we thank thee that we are not as other men are" too frequently has been our individual and collective prayer, rather than "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."

I am prejudiced by the fact that only a few months ago I was going through the countries of Asia, going through village after village and city after city in India, for example, without a single Christian church. Then I returned to my small town of Troy with 1500 popula­tion where we have seven Christian churches. You cannot see this without being deeply disturbed by the sin of division within the Christian church. In theory, the manpower we use in at least four of our Troy churches should be sent to those villages in India. I know this will not happen, but I must ask myself when I look at Troy, "What has happened that permits this terrible waste of Christian energy?" And when I ask the question the finger of guilt inevitably points to me. I share in the guilt and I must do something about it.

I am prejudiced by the fact that today in Germany the Lutheran church and the Roman Catholic church are cooperating as they never have since the days of the Reformation. The only period which compares at all—the dark days of the Nazis. This new cooperation between these church bodies in Germany has been made possible because of the recognition of what they have in common: a common faith and a common enemy.

I am prejudiced, finally, by the fact that I have been permitted to travel on five of the world's continents and I fear I have seen the face of tomorrow. If you have such a look, I don't think you can view your fellow Christians of other denominations as competitors. I do not mean that we should be disloyal to the truth as we see it, but part of loyalty to truth is a recognition of what we have in common as well as what separates us. Even more important is the significance of what we have in common. When the czars were at their worst in Russia, one of the debates which engaged the church of that day was whether you should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three. Today that looks tragic. But will our heirs judge us any more kindly? If I were to hold a graph in front of you with one line representing the percentage of the world's population which is falling under Communist domination that line would be going steadily upward. The other line on the graph would be the percentage of the world's population which is at least nominally Christian. That line would be going steadily down­ward. What can change that ominous picture? It would take the entire afternoon to even partially answer that question, but I can tell you what will not change the picture: a loveless, fighting, bickering Christian church which is more concerned about knocking down her co-religionists than in bending every effort to bring the news of Christ to those who hunger for it.

All of that may seem a long way from the topic of the possibility of having a Roman Catholic president in 1961. On reflection I am sure you will join in the belief that there is a direct relationship, whether you agree with what I have said or not.

The remainder of this paper is taken largely from material I wrote for a men's club discussion for the United Lutheran Church. A reference or two you will find more applicable to their group than to ours, but the basic applications are the same.

Some Lutherans were shocked to see Dr. Franklin Clark Fry quoted in a national magazine as saying that he would vote for a Roman Catholic for the presidency of the United States if he thought the Catholic candidate were a better man than his opponent.

Is this attitude right? What should the proper atti­tude be toward a Catholic running for that high office?

In discussing these questions with you, I'm going to be expressing my personal opinion on the basis of a limited experience in political life. To make this dis­cussion meaningful, I will be getting into areas of disa­greement and controversy. I trust that you will feel at liberty to disagree with me.

The basic question is: Generally speaking, does de­nomination form a legitimate basis for determining for whom you will vote?

When I am campaigning for re-election, occasionally someone comes up to me and says, "Paul, you're a Lu­theran and I'm Lutheran too. I'm going to vote for you."

If I have the chance to explain, I try to point out that if my opponent is a Presbyterian or Methodist, but is a better man than I am, then my Lutheran friends ought to vote for my opponent. The fact that I am a Lutheran does not necessarily make me a better public servant.

I have known weak Lutherans who have sent out literature appealing for votes accompanied by a letter headed, "Dear Fellow Lutheran." This seems to me to be wrong.

Selecting a public official is like picking a man for a job. If you were to employ a mechanic in a garage, the big question would not be whether he is a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Jew, but whether he knows how to fix cars. And when you vote for public office, essentially you are employing someone to do a job, and the big question should be whether by attitude and ability he is the right man for the position.

I believe all of this holds true also for Roman Catho­lics.

Many of my fellow Protestants, I fear, think that Roman Catholics in government positions fall down like dominoes at the will of a bishop or cardinal or high church official. Roman Catholics do have their representatives at our state capitol in Springfield, as do the Protestants and the Jews. But Roman Catholics will divide among themselves on almost all issues. There is no more a Roman Catholic "party line" on things than there is a Lutheran "party line." My ex­perience in three terms in the Illinois legislature is that the Roman Catholic Church does not dictate political decisions to her members.

But what about countries where there has been abuse by the Roman Catholic Church?

Beyond any question there have been areas where there has been abuse by the Roman Catholic Church — just as there have been areas where there has been abuse by the Lutheran Church.

Countries where the Roman Catholic Church has a fine record for tolerance are rarely mentioned. Seldom is it mentioned that Ireland, which is 99 per cent Catholic, has had a Protestant president and a Jewish mayor of Dublin. Seldom is it pointed out that prob­ably a majority of Lutheran ministers in Germany sup­ported Konrad Adenauer, a Roman Catholic German leader.

I know of no instance in a democratic country, where the head of that government was a Roman Catholic, where the Roman Catholic abused that position. I feel that in the United States we would have a similar experience.

In this connection it should be added that for some Protestants being a Christian means being "anti-Catho­lic." I recall meeting a young man in Germany who was to assist me in some army duties. He mentioned that he had heard that I was a Lutheran. Yes, I told him. He beamed with obvious pleasure and then assured me that he was also a Lutheran.

"Our family," he said, "hasn't had one of its members marry a Roman Catholic since 1852."

"Do you attend the large Lutheran church down the street?" I asked him.

He flushed slightly and said he didn't attend church regularly. Upon further questioning I discovered that he had not attended a church service since he was con­firmed more than fifteen years earlier. He was very proud of being a Lutheran — but his Lutheranism was a negative, anti-Catholic affair. He had accepted the emotional traditions of his family in being anti-Catholic, but any positive beliefs were almost totally lacking.

I'm afraid that gentleman has some emotional cousins in the United States.

If you were selecting an eye specialist to perform a delicate operation on your child's eye, you would look for the man who could best perform the operation. You would not look for a Lutheran or Protestant, but for the man who could save your child's sight.

Government today is also a delicate operation. While it may appear simple and easy to the outside observer, it is highly complex — and we need the man who can best perform that operation regardless of his personal religious inclinations.

Is religious affiliation then never a consideration in the conduct of government?

Generally it is not, but in some cases it can be.

A man cannot divorce himself from his personal background.

For example, my Lutheran background probably has helped to shape my attitude on the gambling question.

A Roman Catholic, because of his background, prob­ably will have a different attitude toward birth control than many.

A member of the Jewish faith generally would have a sympathy toward Israel. Naming a member of the Jewish faith to be ambassador to Egypt probably would not be wise.

A Christian Scientist would not get my vote of ap­proval to head the Department of Public Health.

In other words, a man's religious background will help to shape certain attitudes. However, this does not mean that the Pope or the chief rabbi or the president of the Lutheran World Federation would be dictating policy to some member of his faith who holds public office.

Recently a college president told me: "The bad thing about having a Catholic president is that he would be attending the Catholic services regularly if he were a good Catholic. Simply by his example, large numbers of people would be inclined toward joining that church. If he were a weak Catholic, 1 might vote for him, but not if he were a strong Catholic." Is he right?

I think it would have to be conceded that having a Roman Catholic president would be good public re­lations for that church body.

But how many people have joined the Presbyterian Church because President Eisenhower attends Presbyterian services? I doubt if there are many. The fact that a president attends church services may create a bit of tendency toward thinking that attending church services is a good thing, but it probably does not get much more specific than that.

The second point mentioned by the college presi­dent is that if the candidate were a weak Roman Catholic he might vote for him, but not if he were a strong Roman Catholic.

All things being equal between the candidates (which is not likely), one of whom is a weak Roman Catholic and one a strong Roman Catholic, my own preference would be for the strong Roman Catholic. The man who has strong convictions about moral principles is a man I would much prefer to have guide my country, rather than one who lacks moral backbone.

Aren't there Roman Catholic statements which indi­cate that the public office holder must listen to the Pope for political advice and be subservient to him?

There are statements which state just that. There are also statements which deny this. There is difference of opinion on many things within the Roman Catholic Church just as there is within other church bodies.

The official Roman Catholic doctrine is that the Pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, and this is rare. A Roman Catholic has as much right to decline the advice of the Pope on a political matter as you or I do. In all probability, any president, whatever his religious persuasion, would listen carefully to the opinions which the Pope or any other leading religious figure might express. But any president would be free to accept or reject such advice.

Don't Roman Catholics vote pretty  much as a  bloc?

To some extent it is true that Roman Catholics tend to vote for Roman Catholics just as Lutherans tend to vote for Lutherans. Ethnic and cultural groups have a tendency to vote for someone within their own group. Germans vote for Germans, Scandinavians for Scandi­navians, Methodists for Methodists, etc.

As a group becomes thoroughly accepted into the American community, this tendency declines. For example, Polish people will tend to vote for someone with Polish background much more than Germans will vote for a German. The Irish today are not the solid bloc they once were. Negroes have a strong tendency to favor Negro candidates and Jews heavily favor Jewish candidates; both of these groups feel a lack of total acceptance into the American community. Methodist and Baptists and Presbyterians have only a slight tendency to vote as a bloc because they feel very comfortably a part of the American community; the defense mechanism of voting "for one of their own" is not present to any marked degree.

Roman Catholics today do not vote as a bloc to the degree they did twenty or forty years ago. If either party puts a Roman Catholic on the national ticket (as this is being written both parties are considering it) and there are strong attacks made on a Roman Catholic being a candidate, there will be an increasing tendency for Roman Catholics to support a Roman Catholic candidate.

However, many Roman Catholic officials have warned against this. The late Cardinal Stritch not too many months before his death issued a strong statement which stated that his position was to vote for the man more qualified to do a job, regardless of his affiliation. He said that if a Protestant could perform a job more ably than a Roman Catholic candidate, he would be con­science-bound to vote for the Protestant.

What is the harm of injecting the religious issue into a campaign?

It results in a senseless religious feuding and it re­sults in selecting public officials by the wrong standards.

I recently observed a race for a township road com­missioner which got to be a religious fight. The one candidate was Roman Catholic and the other was Evangelical. The question of importance in this case should have been who could do the better job of taking care of the roads.

Does that mean that a man's personal religious life can be separated from his functioning as a public official?

Generally the answer to that question is that you cannot separate faith from life; to separate it is a dan­gerous thing. My religious beliefs should permeate everything I do, whether in the sphere of politics or teaching or barbering or whatever it might be. I don't think a man can attend church on Sunday and then on Monday find no relationship between his religion and issues like foreign aid and racial discrimination.

At the same time there are two things we should keep in mind here:

(1) While my religious life will help mold my opin­ion, I think I should be slow to state that on a specific issue a certain position is the Christian or moral posi­tion. I think there are issues where that can become clear (such as racial discrimination), but I think Chris­tians in government should be cautious about equating their own position with God's position.

(2) While faith does affect political actions, there is a valid dual role between an official's public life and personal life. Moses recognized this on the issue of divorce where in his personal life he believed one thing, but as a public servant he faced a realistic situation and had to take a very different position. A city clerk in my home town was a devout Baptist who believed all drinking of a strong liquor to be a sin. Since he had to sign the liquor licenses, he resigned. I think he did the wrong thing; he failed to make the proper distinc­tion which Moses made. A Roman Catholic judge be­lieves that all divorce is wrong and he follows this in his personal life. But as a judge he must grant di­vorce according to the law and not according to his personal tenets. In a sense he plays a dual role.

The general proposition nevertheless holds that a man cannot separate his personal religious beliefs from his actions in political life. For the most part it shapes attitudes rather than specific policies. Two men of Christian persuasion, who believe they should love their neighbor as themselves, may disagree with each other on the specific program of carrying out that principle; but neither can disregard the basic precept without violating the religious belief he claims.


At the time he wrote this essay, Paul Simon was a Member of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois. In 1985, he was elected to the US Senate in which he served until 1997.

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