From Kennedy v. Nixon to Obama v. Romney

On the day after President Obama was reelected president of the United States, I woke up in Indianapolis where we are spending a few days visiting family members. Hardly had I stumbled out of bed, when my mind flashed back to November 9, 1960, the morning after the presidential election in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by a nation-wide margin of only 100,000 votes.

Kennedy was the first Catholic to serve in that office, the first president born in the twentieth century, and the youngest person to be elected to the high office. The vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket was Lyndon B. Johnson, long-time leader of the Senate.

Richard Nixon had served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, and his running mate was a senior Republican figure, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Together, they represented traditional Republican patterns of thought and political action, while the Kennedy-Johnson ticket represented the probability of significant changes in the direction that the United States would be traveling.

In 1960, I was halfway through my doctoral studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. On election day, the campus was alive with eager anticipation that Kennedy would win, and the day after was rife with palpable joy all over the Bay Area.

I spent the day flying to Indianapolis where I was to be interviewed for a position on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary. On the morning of the interview, the air was clear, the leaves beautifully colored, and puddles along Sunset Road were covered with crustings of thin ice.

In sharp contrast to the beauty outside, however, the seminary campus was marked by apocalyptic gloom. Students, staff, and faculty seemed united in their despondency because of the Kennedy-Johnson victory despite the fact that Johnson had grown up in a Texas congregation of the same Christian Church movement with which the seminary was and is affiliated.

I am not well versed in the literature that discusses the tendency of Protestant church leaders of that era to favor the values espoused by the Republican Party of their time. I had picked it up as part of my preparations to be a minister in my church, which is probably the reason why I had cast my first vote after turning twenty-one for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although it took me a decade or more to change my registration, I found myself voting increasingly for Democratic candidates across the full electoral range. On that post-election day 52 years ago, I felt right at home in Berkeley’s ecstasy and was bemused by the despairing mood in Indianapolis.

During the next few years, as the CTS faculty was remade with new hires of young professors, the political mood on campus changed, and the seminary’s personnel became increasingly identified with liberal politics despite the fact that Indianapolis and much of the Mid-West continued to favor classic Republicanism.

Long since retired, I have returned to the Portland-Vancouver locale of my early years, to a section of the country that consistently favors progressive values and policies, a region that this week helped boost Obama into his second term.

We arrived for our Indianapolis visit shortly after midnight on election day. Later in the day, after a few hours of sleep, I spent several hours on the campus of my beloved seminary (now relocated and housed in a building of our time). Although my purpose was to do research on a writing project, I found that political talk was in the air.

Someone reported that the seminary’s new president and his wife had done door-to-door calling for Obama. And friends on faculty and staff, with whom I had served prior to my retirement in 1995, were anxiously awaiting results, cautiously hopeful that Obama would triumph across the nation even though it was a foregone conclusion that Romney would easily win Indiana’s vote.

In these post-election days, I have been thinking about this change of political alignment, wondering why it has come about. One answer is that the seminary’s primary constituency, the ecumenical Protestant churches, continue to represent the push for new patterns in American life.

Our churches have challenged the old orthodoxies that supported discrimination and unjust treatment based on gender, race, and class. While we have advocated a new kind of America, a wide range of newly potent versions of evangelical Protestantism have continued to support the old ways, and until lately they have constituted the majority of the nation.

This election, however, has decisively demonstrated that the old domination by white people, and especially by white males, has ended. A new America is emerging.

I am grateful that during this half-century of cultural change I and my seminary have and continue to be part of the progressive branch of the Protestant tradition. Long may this new tradition live!

6 Responses to From Kennedy v. Nixon to Obama v. Romney

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Obviously, the Grand Old Party desperately needs to engage in some deep ‘soul’ searching if it hopes to remain a viable political force. A largely white, elderly, rural political party with a large gender gap in terms of appealing to women, needs to become more inclusive/expansive in its appeal to minorities including sexual orientation, or it will become more and more marginalized/irrelevant. The same can also be said about many portions of the church. Like you Keith, I’m also glad to participate in a church communion that both idealizes and to some extent incarnates a hopeful journey into being a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” If the GOP doesn’t adopt a similar expansive journey, the political world will pass it by as a remnant from a society that no longer exists.

  2. Marshall Watkins says:

    Although I find it difficult to be a part of the crowd that includes unions I too am happy to see President Obama reelected rather than be pursuing a vague five-point plan laid out by a businessman known mostly for shipping jobs overseas. I wonder too at the out-of-touchness by Republican leaders and their seemingly callous attitudes towards resolving America’s problems. I wonder too at what will replace the GOP. Will it be the Tea Party? I hope not.

  3. Well said, Keith. I, also, am voting very differently than when I was ordained in 1957! I see the struggle to Republican party and the issues of change in our mainline churches to be so similar – it is unsettling. The mandate for church change comes from our highest
    Call; but both have elements of survival included!! Thanks for your post.

  4. Glenn Hebert says:

    Nobody here is talking about reforming, yes “reforming”, our national debt. We can admire change all we want, but we need to recognize that debt is undermining everything. The fact that the Democratic Party wouldn’t admit that the basic premises of Social Security and Medicare need to be changed for future generations to keep these programs viable is very disheartening. Higher taxes may do the trick, but I’m not betting on it. Other than that option, I see no leadership from the Democratic Party. To me, they’re just saying, “Everybody take what you can until there’s nothing left for anyone to take.” If this is not a social welfare issue, I don’t know what social welfare issues are all about.

    • Your comment includes several topics, each of which deserves careful attention, but I’m responding only to one of them. One of the most important is the impact of Medicare upon our nation’s fiscal structure, and this is only one aspect of the complex system of health care in the United States. I have recently read Kathleen Sharp’s book “Blood Feud” which reports on the shameful history of the blatant misuse of EPO, the drug of choice used to increase performance in sports like cycling. It is one of the most disheartening books I’ve read because of the way it reveals “basic premises” in the pharmaceutical industry, the financial incentives in medical practice, the mixed character of academic medicine, the complex methods of billing because of the interaction of insurance companies, medical providers, and governmental entities. If we were to deal with these roots of the problem, Medicare (and health services for the rest of the population, too) could be revised dramatically. The indirect but potent drag Medicare places on Social Security could also be resolved. As for Social Security, revisions are from time to time necessary, but the basic premises here are generally strong and enduring.

  5. Joe Culpepper says:

    I remember the Kennedy-Nixon campaign as the first presidential election in my awareness, at age 12! My sister & I posted hand made posters on telephone poles in our neighborhood in Macon, GA & put flyers under car windshield wipers in support of JFK. I am grateful to my parents even then in the deep south for instilling in me progressive values rooted in their strong Christian faith lived out in a desire to love God & help others, especially the poor, the discriminated against, and the marginalized. I have been a liflelong Democrat (some might say a “yeller dawg democrat”) because I believe the Democratic Party most often (though not always) reflects & pursues those faith values. Thanks for a thoughtful reflection!

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