Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

For The First Time, No WASPs This Election


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Four years ago, American voters were presented with a unique choice and elected Barack Obama the first African-American president. Now, for different reasons, the choice is again unique. This year, for the first time since the founding of the republic, there is no white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant represented on either major presidential ticket. What might that mean? Is the face of the American ruling class changing?

Here to talk about that is Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. He joins us from his home on Cape Cod. Welcome.

STEPHEN PROTHERO: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, is this really what the end of the WASP establishment looks like?

PROTHERO: Well, that's a good question. I mean, there are obviously both, by most accounts, tall, dark, handsome white men. But if you drill down on the religion side, which is my expertise, you've got a Mormon and a Catholic. And it really wasn't too long ago that all we ever had in American politics was white male Protestants. So at least the religion piece of that is starting to change.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the first Catholic president was Kennedy in 1960. There are two Catholics on the tickets this time around - Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. But Romney is the first Mormon ever to make it to the place he's made it to. Is that important?

PROTHERO: I think so. And I think we're in for a conversation now in this election, both about what Mormonism is all about. I think Governor Romney isn't really keen on talking about that 'cause he knows it's controversial. But I think we're going to have more conversation about what kind of impact do Mormon beliefs and practices have on ones politics.

And then, I think we're going to have perhaps even more interesting conversation about what kind of Catholicism is really the appropriate one for American life. We've got someone who's a social justice Catholic with Joe Biden. And we have someone who's much more kind of family values Catholic with Paul Ryan.

WERTHEIMER: Or a social conservative Catholic, we might even say.

PROTHERO: That's right - who's focusing on, you know, the side of Catholicism that says no to abortion, rather than the side of Catholicism that says take care of the poor and the oppressed.

WERTHEIMER: You said that you expect there to be discussion about what it means to be a Mormon. But Mr. Romney has been quite clear that he doesn't want to talk about it. He hasn't talked about it. When is that conversation going to take place, do you think?

PROTHERO: I'm not sure it's really up to him to decide exactly what the voters...


PROTHERO: ...and the media are going to want him to talk about. You know, there's going to four debates. And I think in those debates I would be shocked, frankly, if one person at least doesn't ask him, you know, tell us about your Mormonism. And tell us about what impact it will have on being president, if you become president. I think that's a perfectly appropriate question to ask particularly inside a political party that has, for the last generation, decided that religion and politics are really hand-in-glove and that faith matters, and that we want people in higher office to be Christians and to be people of faith.

So I don't think he's going to be able to sidestep that one entirely. I think he's going to have to say what the Mormon tradition stands for and how it would impact on a Mormon president.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we had a number of elections where politicians have talked about values, especially when they are talking to religious voters. I'm wondering if that level of concern that evangelical voters have had, if that is going to somehow emerge in consideration of the Romney-Ryan ticket.

PROTHERO: Well, one thing that Romney has tried to do is he's tried to talk about how his values square with Republican and conservative Christian values. So he's been speaking, for example, when he went to Liberty University, the school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. He didn't speak about his Mormonism but he talked about the ways in which his family values squared with evangelical values. And I think that that is something that Republicans are going to be stressing.

But I think one interesting thing that's happening now in American politics, now that both parties have kind of gotten on the religion bandwagon, is that the Republicans don't have a stranglehold over the values word. And so, we're increasingly having a conversation about, well, what are Christian values or what are American values when it comes to, for example, tax policy, or when it comes to war, or when it comes to torture?

So the idea that the only values are values around abortion or gay marriage I think is really going away and we're increasingly thinking that, well, the economy poses ethical questions as well.

WERTHEIMER: Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University. And he joined us from his home on Cape Cod.

Mr. Prothero, thank you so much.

PROTHERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.