Here's something you can try if you enjoy being offended. Go to Google and punch up "first Catholic president". You will be rewarded with a listing of websites, half of which refer to George W. Bush.
Now I know some people used to call Bill Clinton America's first black president, and that was kind of stupid, but at least nobody had to pass over an actual African American chief executive in order to make that claim. And should Barack Obama win the battle for the White House in 2008, nobody will ever again refer to Clinton in that manner.
But we did actually have a Catholic president. His name was John F. Kennedy. He was well known, quite popular, and his Catholicism became something of an issue during the 1960 election. His face appears on the half dollar coin even today, so it's not like anyone could really forget about him.
Maybe not, but last Sunday, with Pope Benedict XVI coming to America (yeah, I had to look up his name, too) some guy named Daniel Burke wrote the following in the once reputable Washington Post:
"[I]f Bill Clinton can be called America's first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation's first Catholic president. This isn't as strange a notion as it sounds. Yes, there was John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy sought to divorce his religion from his office, Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them."
Then, just to dig the hole a little deeper, Burke drags former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum out of the political graveyard to remark that Bush is "certainly much more Catholic than Kennedy". When a man has publicly compared homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, the idiot bar is already set pretty high. Santorum, however, may have shattered his own world record. A practicing Catholic himself, the recently defeated senator evidently feels that opposition to abortion and stem cell research trumps confirmation, communion, and confession in the eyes of Rome. It's hard to imagine a man being any dumber without needing to wear a metal bracelet reminding him how to breathe.
As for Mr. Burke, we will generously assume that he was not a history major. At no time did JFK seek to "divorce his religion from his office". Kennedy was a proud and vocal Catholic and his faith clearly informed his views on social justice (just as his ambition informed his general unwillingness to act on those views while in office). In his famous speech to the Houston Baptists, the future president never promised to put his Catholicism in a blind trust. He simply reassured his more bigoted countrymen that he would refuse to take orders from Rome and would resign the presidency before he would impose his personal faith on the public agenda.
Only late in the article does Burke concede that maybe there's more to the Catholic Church than its views on a couple of hot button issues. Indeed, a few Catholics, apparently unwilling to throw JFK under the historical bus, even suggest that Bush's policies "have created a wealth gap that clearly upends the Catholic principle of solidarity with the poor". Ya think? Oh, and our 21st Century Carl Bernstein neglects to mention the death penalty, but W's Texas record as a serial executioner would earn a real Catholic serious minutes in the penalty box, or at least the confessional booth. When John Paul II talked about the "culture of life", he was not merely referring to fetuses.
Bush has, the article noted, appointed Catholics to both Supreme Court positions that have come open on his watch, continuing the pattern of recent Republican presidents. (Of course, his first choice for one of those slots was his own attorney, Harriet Miers, an evangelical Protestant.) Indeed, a majority of the High Court now consists of Roman Catholics, as Bush's justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, join Clarence Thomas (selected by his dad), Anthony Kennedy (chosen by Ronald Reagan), and Antonin Scalia (ditto) on the bench.
Speaking of which, the majority-Catholic court celebrated Benedict's arrival in the United States Sunday by upholding the practice of execution by lethal injection, an activity which was challenged on the basis that it might be cruel and unusual. Some have argued that the process paralyzes the victim but still allows him or her to feel excruciating pain. The Eighth Amendment would seem to frown on that sort of thing.
Nevertheless, this apparently troubled the Court no more than it bothers the "first Catholic president". Chief Justice Roberts, once celebrated as a brilliant legal mind, bizarrely argued that "a condemned prisoner cannot successfully challenge a state's method of execution merely by showing a slightly or marginally safer alternative." The issue, of course, is not safety; this is an execution, Einstein. The issue is finding a way to perform the procedure without torturing the condemned prisoner (assuming the Court considers torture a constitutional violation, something we may—shudder—learn in the near future). By a 7-2 margin, the Court decided it didn't matter.
Perhaps someone will think to ask Pope Benedict how he feels about the fact that all five of the Court's Catholics voted with the majority. Or, even better, maybe they can see what the Pontiff thinks about the concurring opinion written by Scalia and Thomas, both members of the flock, that a "method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain." Evidently, pain inflicted carelessly or ignorantly doesn't hurt as much; I must have missed that message in John Paul's teachings.
Four years ago, the country was treated to a moronic debate over whether John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, should be allowed to take Holy Communion. Oddly, those same voices of tolerance are not only silent on the eligibility of the Catholic justices, they are even suggesting saving a wafer for our warmongering president. If we are lucky, Benedict will remind them what a real Catholic sounds like.
In the meantime, just to clear things up, George W. Bush is not the first Catholic president. You do not become a Catholic—much less a Catholic president—simply on the basis of your desire to impose your beliefs on other people. John F. Kennedy, the first real Catholic in the White House, understood that. Bush's actions do not make him the first Catholic president; if anything, they make him the first Taliban president.