Looking ahead: From 'Cuomo Catholicism' to questions about Jeb Bush

It's time for reporters to start preparing themselves for a new “religious issue” if, as expected, Jeb Bush runs for U.S. president.

Bush, a former Episcopalian who converted to wife Columba’s church in 1995, could become the first Roman Catholic to win the Republican nomination. In fact, his party has only chosen two Catholics for vice president and neither won that office (William Miller and Paul Ryan).
By contrast, the Democrats have named three for president (Al Smith, the sole Catholic president John F. Kennedy, and John Kerry) and four for vice president (Edmund Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Geraldine Ferraro, and the only one to serve, incumbent Joseph Biden).

Conservative writer Ira Stoll is right on top of things, pondering on Dec. 29 over at the libertarian reason.com site how Bush would handle the “Catholic question." 

For example, a 2013 Bush speech quoted in The Miami Herald said his views on immigration reflect “what my church teaches me.” That puts him to the left of the GOP field on the issue, and such remarks may trouble citizens who agree with President John F. Kennedy’s wariness toward any religious influences in public policy.

On the other hand, Bush has criticized President Barack Obama’s new U.S. outreach to Cuba, which Stoll says creates an “implicit” contrast with “the foreign policy of Pope Francis.” In addition, Francis is expected to soon unite with the political left on global warming, which would rile the Republican “base.”  Bush may end up as a “cafeteria Catholic” who picks and chooses which of the church’s social teachings to support.

Or should we speak of a new kind of “Cuomo Catholicism,” a term coined in a 2011 National Catholic Reporter commentary by the estimable Ken Briggs (a friend of mine since his years with Newsday and The New York Times)? 

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who died Jan 1, was a Catholic who famously favored liberal abortion laws though he “personally opposed”  the practice. In the same way, Briggs observed, his son Andrew, currently New York governor and a possible presidential aspirant, opposes the church’s stance (doctrines?) against same-sex marriage.

For Briggs,  the two Cuomos are part of “a growing movement among lay Catholics to consider their own counsel on moral matters while retaining their identity as Catholics, refusing to label themselves as outcasts.”  

In Briggs’s opinion,  with attempted conformity and “litmus tests” on contested moral issues “churches fall into rigidity and judgmentalism” that has proven “futile” and obscures their message of salvation.  Conservatives may wonder whether that’s likewise true with stands that religious liberals take on -- Jeb take note -- Cuba, immigration, or global warming.

At one time, of course, Catholic America was fused at the hip with the Democratic Party. But in recent decades church-going Catholics (except for Hispanics) have emerged as a key swing bloc and the political math says a Republican cannot win the White House without taking a majority of them.

Just so, Republican hopefuls depend on a solid majority of Protestant churchgoers (except for solidly Democratic-voting African-Americans) while Democratic candidates must appeal to the growing ranks of non-religious Americans.

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