The first electoral breakthrough for Roman Catholicism in the United States came in 1928, when Democrats made Al Smith the first Catholic presidential nominee of a major party. The second breakthrough followed a generation later, when Democrat John F. Kennedy became the nation's first Catholic president.
In recent years, however, what was once rare has become routine. John Kerry, a Catholic, won the Democratic nomination in 2004. Joe Biden, also a Democrat, became the nation's first Catholic vice president four years later. In 2016, Tim Kaine, also a Democrat, nearly became the nation's second Catholic vice president.
But in 2020, as is true in so many ways, the issue has grown ... complicated.
As Biden seeks to become the nation's second Roman Catholic president, he's facing some ugly religio-political attacks from Donald Trump, who's told voters the Democrat is "against God" and will "hurt the Bible" if elected. At the Republican National Convention, retired football coach Lou Holtz went so far as to question the sincerity of Biden's religious beliefs -- and the president announced soon after that Holtz would receive the nation's highest civilian honor.
At the same time, the Republican president has nominated Amy Coney Barrett, also a Catholic, to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and Trump and his partisan allies have begun accusing the far-right judge's detractors of being "anti-Catholic," even as they attack Biden on matters of faith.
It was against this backdrop that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who's been on the campaign trail far more than is appropriate, asked to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week. The Pontiff declined, reluctant to be used for political purposes in the midst of the U.S. election season.
The New York Times reported overnight on the scope of the friction.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently published a sharp letter excoriating the Vatican's plans to renew an agreement with the Chinese government on Church operations in China. He promoted the article in a tweet, concluding, "The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal." An indignant Vatican took the article more as a calculated affront than a diplomatic gesture. The friction broke into the open on Wednesday as Mr. Pompeo arrived in Rome and met with prelates and others who are hostile to Pope Francis.
It seems like a curious time for the Trump administration's chief diplomat to pick a fight with the pope, but the cross-currents of religion and politics are clearly moving in strange directions right now.