Pity the poor right-wing Protestants. Leaving aside Ron Paul (as is the common practice in the media and, increasingly, elsewhere), there are four candidates remaining in the presidential race. The three top Republicans are comprised of two Roman Catholics and a Mormon.
It has been traditional among many right-wing Protestants to classify both Mormonism and Catholicism as cults.
A woman in Georgia who was interviewed this week about how she would vote in the state's primary on Tuesday, articulated the traditional position of evangelical Protestants when she said of Mitt Romney, "I'm a Christian and he's a Mormon. That may create some bias with me because we have very different religions."
Just two weeks ago, Rev. Franklin Graham said in an interview that most Christians do "not recognize Mormonism" as part of Christianity. This past week, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared that he does not consider Mitt Romney and other Mormons to be Christians.
In mid-January, a group of right-wing evangelical Protestant clergymen met in Texas and endorsed Catholic Rick Santorum. These ministers, several of them among those I have classified as "Jesus Thieves" for their use of the name of Jesus to promote policies completely opposite of those taught by Jesus, were so intent on trying to block a moderate Mormon that they embraced someone they and their religious forebears would in the past have denounced as a "papist."
Living as Catholics in Mississippi, we still commonly hear Protestants referring to Catholicism as a cult.
After John F. Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, America's most widely read Protestant minister, forcefully demonstrated the power of negative thinking when he addressed a group of leading Protestant ministers at a conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom by declaring: "The election of a Catholic President would change America."
The way in which many Protestants feared that the election of a Catholic would change America was that they believed that the Pope would have a hotline to the White House and dictate policy to the President.
Candidate Kennedy responded to these fears with his famous and widely praised address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September.
It is, of course, that speech that Rick Santorum said "makes me throw up." The candidate went on to proclaim, "I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
What JFK said in that speech is: "I believe in an America... where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope."
If that makes Santorum want to throw up, it is plain that he would --and believes that a Catholic should --accept instructions on public policy from the Pope. He is saying that he would be exactly the sort of Catholic president that Rev. Peale and so many other Protestants in 1960 feared a Catholic president would be.
That's the man with whom many right-wing Protestants have chosen to walk to the political altar. In their relations with this man, the Protestants would be well advised to utilize contraception.
Oh, by the way, the fourth presidential candidate is a Protestant. His name is Barack Obama. But the right-wing Protestants have persuaded themselves that he's a Muslim. So they're rejecting the only Protestant to embrace a Catholic who at least implies that he would take instructions from the Pope and they will wind up with a nominee who belongs to a religious group they consider to be a non-Christian cult.
Pity the poor right-wing Protestants.
Robert S. McElvaine is a history professor at Millsaps College. His most recent book is a 25th-anniversary edition of 'The Great Depression.' He is now writing, 'Oh, Freedom! -- The Young '60s.'