TALLAHASSEE - Florida once had a governor who is remembered less for what he accomplished than for how he got elected. Denied the 1916 Democratic nomination by a questionable count (some things never change) Sidney J. Catts continued the campaign as a Prohibitionist and won on a ranting, raving, racist platform that was as anti-Catholic as anti-black. One of his campaign workers posed as a priest to make offensive speeches against Catts in heavily Protestant rural areas.
Twelve years later, Florida's yellow-dog Democrats deserted their Roman Catholic presidential nominee, Al Smith, in sufficient numbers to deliver the state to a Republican, Herbert Hoover, for the only time between 1876 and 1952. Smith's religion also cost him Oklahama, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. Not for another generation did the Democrats dare to nominate another Catholic for the presidency.
That nominee was John F. Kennedy, who won so narrowly that he would have lost had fewer than 25,000 votes gone differently in five close states. He owed his victory in large part to how he confronted the religion issue in a historic speech on Sep. 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Religion ought not to be the most critical issue, Kennedy told the Protestant clergymen, "for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier." Yet it was an issue, and so he would confront it.
"I believe," he said, "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 . . .
"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source . . .
"I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president . . . on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views - in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."
In the event of an irreconcilable conflict between conscience and the national interest, Kennedy said, "I would resign the office, and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise."
And so he asked to be judged not on his religion but his record - a record, he pointed out, that included "my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools, which I attended myself."
With Kennedy's election, Americans thought they had laid to rest the question of whether a Catholic politician could faithfully serve the public. Now, it is sad to say, there are people trying to arouse the ghost of Sidney J. Catts.
The irony is that these people are Catholics.
They are the handful of bishops, and those urging them on, who have declared that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights will be denied Communion until they publicly recant. As of last week, this is church policy throughout most of Georgia and the Carolinas. Who knows where it will stop?
Does the policy apply to judges as well as legislators? If not now, then when?
And who knows what other political correctness the church will decree? For example, the church does not currently oppose the death penalty with the same ardor as it devotes to abortion, but there may come a day when Jeb Bush is denied the sacrament because he signs death warrants. It is a distinction with very little difference.
This is not a problem only for Catholics. It is a concern for Americans of all persuasions who don't want to have to wonder about a candidate's religious affiliation when we are deciding for whom we will vote.
A candidate's views on abortion, public prayer, vouchers or any other religion-related issue have mattered less to me than the integrity and sincerity by which they were formed.
I voted for the late, great Doug Jamerson for the Legislature and for education commissioner, despite our opposing views on some abortion issues, because I believed his came strictly from his conscience and because there was much else upon which we did agree. But I could not have voted for him had I thought he was following not just the teachings but also the orders of his church. There is a substantial difference.
The inevitable results of the bishops' misguided arrogance will be to drive many conscientious Catholics out of public life - or out of their church - and force other voters to doubt the integrity of those who remain. Were John F. Kennedy still alive, surely he would weep.