ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The comparisons were inevitable. JFK, the 1960 Democratic nominee, he was a Catholic, facing public opposition from some prominent Protestant churchmen. The only other Catholic to win the nomination, Al Smith, had run and lost back in 1928, never publicly speaking about his faith. Kennedy, in 1960, spoke to Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, about his ideas about religion and politics.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.

SIEGEL: Kennedy also reminded his audience that day of his record in Congress. He'd not only opposed what he called unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, he had also opposed sending an ambassador to the Vatican.

David Campbell is a political scientist at Notre Dame, who's written about religion and the American politics.

Welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID CAMPBELL (Political Scientist, Notre Dame University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: To hear Mitt Romney today and just that part of JFK's speech in 1960, you can't help but sense that political discourse in America about religion was a lot different then than it is today.

Prof. CAMPBELL: Certainly. I mean, Kennedy stood before his audience and essentially said to a group of Protestants, you can vote for me, a Catholic, because you can be assured that my Catholicism will not necessarily inform what I will do as president.

Today, when Mitt Romney spoke, he was essentially saying exactly the opposite. Vote for me, my faith will inform what I would do as president. But then, of course, he had to reassure his audience that his faith has common ground with other faiths that may not be the same.

SIEGEL: Given that we didn't hear presidential candidates saying that sort of thing back in 1960, what happened? What was the change? When did it happen in American life?

Prof. CAMPBELL: Well, there is - some scholars, they debate about this. But I think for the most part, most people would agree that the candidacy of Jimmy Carter in 1976 was critical. Carter was really the first presidential candidate to publicly identify himself as an evangelical or a born again Christian and therefore kind of put that group on the political radar screen as, you know, being a politically salient portion of the electorate.

One of the great ironies, of course, of American politics is that Carter, a Democrat, kind of started the ball rolling, but it was the Republicans who ended up with that group more or less in their camp, and that, of course, we see today with the presidency of George W. Bush.

SIEGEL: There was a moment in the speech today that Mitt Romney gave, when he reiterated his lack of interest in talking about many of his beliefs. Certainly, he doesn't want to talk about the doctrines of his church. But he did say people often ask me this, and I should answer. Here's what he said.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Mr. ROMNEY: What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.

SIEGEL: Rather unusual theological statement for a candidate for a presidential nomination.

Prof. CAMPBELL: Well, unusual only in the sense that perhaps Romney has said more about his belief in Jesus than we've heard in the past. But we certainly, within the last few election cycles, have heard candidates use overtly religious language. You may recall a famous incident in the primary season in 2000, when George W. Bush was running for the Republican nomination. When he was asked to name his favorite political philosopher, he named Jesus Christ. And I would say that what we have here from Romney is kind of an extension of that sort of talk that you have found in the past.

SIEGEL: Have you heard anyone recently voiced the interpretation of the separation of church and state that John F. Kennedy was expressing in that speech in Houston in 1960?

Prof. CAMPBELL: Well, that's a good question. I don't think there is anyone, at least of the top-tier candidates running today, who have articulated quite that way. I will say that when Bill Bradley was running in 2000 against Al Gore in the Democratic primary, I do remember Bradley making statements that were very similar to what Kennedy was saying in 1960. But of course, he didn't win the nomination.

SIEGEL: I think, back in the days of JFK, a lot of Americans just assumed that the role of religion in our life was something that was steadily declining over the years. That hasn't been the case for the past couple of decades. Where do you think it's headed in the future, over the next couple of decades?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, that's a very good question. And I'm involved with some research right now that suggests that there actually is increasing secularization; that is more and more people who are turning away from religion or telling pollsters that they have no religious affiliation. It's not a large group, but it is a growing group. And if you look forward, it is likely that we will see, you know, increasing numbers of Americans who claim no religion at all. And that may very well have an effect on how much God-talk we hear from political candidates in the future. But for the time being, I think we're going to hear still a lot of talk about religion whenever candidates run.

SIEGEL: Professor Campbell, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's political scientist David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame.

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