John Kerry, like the Supreme Court in 1973, is doing what centuries of prelates could not and would not do: uniting millions of Protestants and Catholics. Just as the Court's Roe vs. Wade decision pushed leaders of both groups to unite against abortion, so Kerry's views are also prompting a political shift.
Look at it this way: In 1960, John F. Kennedy's Catholicism, although nominal, prompted many Catholics to vote for him. In 1980, Jimmy Carter's overt evangelicalism turned off many Catholics. In 2004, according to a recent Pew poll, a majority of Catholics plan to vote for George W. Bush, an overt evangelical, against John Kerry, officially a Catholic.
How nominal is Kerry's Catholicism? Just look at his 1998 interview with American Windsurfer, the journal of a charming sport that has become a Kerry metaphor. The senator said: "I am a believer in the Supreme Being, in God. I believe without any question in this force that is so much larger and more powerful than anything human beings can conceivably define." Sounds more like "Star Wars" than Christ on the cross.
Is Kerry a CINO, a Catholic in name only? He goes to Mass but windsurfs theologically: He has "always been fascinated by the Transcendentalists and the Pantheists and others who found these great connections just in nature, in trees, the ponds, the ripples of the wind on the pond, the great feast of nature itself."
Does Kerry speak about sin? Can't find that anywhere in his published speeches, but he did tell American Windsurfer: "So much of the conflict on the face of this planet is rooted in religions and the belief systems they give rise to. The fundamentalism of one entity or another." He does have ardent praise for the Dalai Lama, who "is certainly telling us there is life from enlightenment -- here and hereafter, but I think, whether or not we're going to be (enlightened) is the great test that all of us are struggling with."
Is this Catholicism? Doesn't sound like it, but these mixed messages are apparently common at Sen. Kerry's home church, the very liberal Paulist Center in Boston. Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard attended a Center service and observed a reciting of an edited version of the Nicene Creed, with the section on believing in only "one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God," dropped out.
Once the theological ball is dropped, other balls -- marriage, sanctity of life and so on -- also hit the floor. The noise of all those balls dropping is mixed with the sound of most Catholics fleeing the Kerry campaign -- and also backing Bush because of a common social vision. As Catholic scholar George Weigel writes, Catholics now teach that "the free and virtuous society is a complex set of interactions among a democratic political community, a free economy and a public moral culture. ... The culture is the key to the entire edifice. A culture that teaches freedom-as-license is going to wreck democracy and the free economy, sooner or later."
A decade ago, I wrote a book about 18th century America, "Fighting for Liberty and Virtue," that pointed out how evangelicals like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams noted freedom's dependence on morality. They argued, as does Weigel, that liberty sets loose enormous human energy, and that a free society can survive only if people have "bottom," to use the 18th century expression: A society, like a ship, needs some weight or it is blown around by the winds.
Most Catholics evidently see Bush as having bottom on Iraq and domestic policy, and Kerry lacking it. The root cause of bottomlessness is usually theological confusion, and Kerry exhibits that, big time.