More from Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats
The problem with (Jack) Kennedy's speech was not that he misconceived the relationship of church and state, but the relationship between religion and culture, including the culture of his own ideas. For him, religion was an accident of birth, like Jackie being a brunette, something odd he did on Sunday mornings, but nothing that would inform his views. -- Michael Sean Winters
Winters points an accusatory finger in an unlikely direction. Jack Kennedy generally gets rave reviews and accolades for his speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, and rightfully so, but Winters points out that it also had a downside and an unintended effect...
How did the Democrats lose the Catholic vote? How did the electoral-cultural alliance epitomized in the New Deal coalition fall apart? A critical part of the answer to those questions is ideological. In the interest of pursuing his own election, Kennedy did more than restrict religion's role in politics, he claimed to eliminate it. Claiming religion was private and, therefore, beyond question, Kennedy succeeded in portraying those who questioned his religion in any way as bigots. Other politicians were similarly disinclined from the sometimes difficult task of working out the social and political implications of their beliefs, and they followed Kennedy's lead. Just so, Democrats became unable to perform the important task of relating their policies and programs to an explicitly moral vision for the nation. Monsignor Ryan had done so in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Catholic bishops did so on nuclear weapons and the economy in the 1980s. But politicians had become too timid to address the important ways religion had, and always will, influence the nation's political life.
Following this "privatization" of religion, the dynamics of the abortion debate, and development of "privacy rights" in the jurisprudence of the courts led Democrats to redefine liberalism. This resulted in a view that had more in common with the liberalism of the universities and the philosophers and their biases against religion than with the traditions of American liberalism. Gone was the pragmatic liberalism of Roosevelt and the New Deal, rooted in providing for the material well-being of the poor, elderly, and unemployed. In its place was a conception of personal autonomy, unmoored from religious or moral qualifications, vindicated not by the voters but by the courts. This change left Democrats increasingly tone-deaf to the concerns of voters whose views on the entirety of their lives, including politics, were shaped by their faith and who were suspicious of those who tried to wall off their faith from the rest of their lives.
The discussion of how religion affects our common national lift, was left to conservatives and Republicans, and they were all too happy to take it up, finding in their efforts a way to propel themselves back into the majority. The GOP became the "God Party." Democrats became the party of irreligion by abandoning their traditional moral and specifically religious arguments against segregation and the Vietnam War, and adopting a legalistic conception of rights and libertarian flirtations of a kind completely antithetical to traditional American liberal concerns. In a nation of churchgoers, Republicans were bound to win.