The fuzzy politics of religion: When is it okay to judge candidates for their faith?

What’s more, it seems right and just that voters would look to the moral bases on which an officeholder will make life-or-death decisions. Democracy places an awesome burden on the population to decide who should be entrusted with the awful power to approve laws and then enforce them, at gunpoint if necessary. A candidate’s values are and should be an important factor in determining whether to support him, because they speak directly to the type of leader he would be.

And yet.

We humans haven’t historically demonstrated a keen ability to give a fair hearing to people whose beliefs and traditions differ from our own. Though Kennedy may have genuinely believed the things he said in his Protestant ministers speech, the reason he felt compelled to lay them out so starkly was that, at the time, the possibility that a Roman Catholic might be elected to the presidency was, in the eyes of many Americans, a scandal.

Anti-Catholic sentiment can seem like a thing of the past. After all, today the vice president is Catholic, as are six of nine Supreme Court justices. We have a Catholic speaker of the House (John Boehner) who succeeded one Catholic (Nancy Pelosi) and will very likely soon be succeeded by another (Paul Ryan). And that same Gallup survey from June found more than 90 percent of Americans now saying they would vote for a well-qualified candidate who was Catholic. The Sistine ceiling has been shattered. But as a Catholic myself, I’m intensely aware that it wasn’t always so.