From West Virginia comes this news of a significant piece of history being made.

Two Catholics are running for governor. And their religion is being greeted with little more than a shrug.

From the Huntington Herald-Dispatch:

Quietly, discreetly, with practically no one paying attention, the West Virginia gubernatorial race has swept away the last remnants of some old and ugly notions.

For the first time ever, both major party candidates for the office are Roman Catholics, members of a church whose members make up barely 4 percent of West Virginia’s population.

And, unlike elections still vivid in living memory, this time few have even noticed.

“I remember the 1960 election as a young kid,” said Gov. Joe Manchin, who was an altar boy at the time. “I remember people saying that if Kennedy won, the pope would run the country. I just couldn’t believe the things I was hearing.”

Manchin, the first Catholic elected governor of the state, is running for a second term against former Raleigh County state Sen. Russ Weeks, a fellow Catholic.

The stark difference between 2008 and 1960 shows how much the charged issue of faith and politics has changed, not just here but nationally.

West Virginia’s primary was famously the proving ground for John F. Kennedy, then a young Massachusetts senator trying to convince voters his faith was not a threat to democracy.

It was a time when a nationally renowned religious figure like Norman Vincent Peale warned that “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake,” a message that could resonate in a state like West Virginia, where many voters had little knowledge about Catholicism.

“In the 1960 presidential primary, Hubert Humphrey had a commanding lead until Kennedy came in and spent time here,” remembered Ken Hechler, who was then a Democratic congressman from the state. “That helped people overcome their antipathy towards a Catholic politician.”

Nick Casey, then a young boy who saw Kennedy speak at the state Capitol and now chairman of the state Democratic Party and a prominent Catholic, recalled the words of a Logan County party regular who decided Kennedy’s economic policies outweighed his religion: “Better to eat fish on Fridays if you can have steak the rest of the week.”

Kennedy went on to win the primary and then become the country’s first — and, to date, only — Catholic president. But while Catholics remain a tiny minority in West Virginia, few voters here worry about papal meddling in the affairs of state any longer.

“Being a Roman Catholic is not a political factor,” Weeks said. “It’s just not an issue. We’ve really come a long way in that regard.”

Partly that’s because of national political changes since 1960. First the civil rights movement and then the movement that sprang from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision united Catholics and Protestants in unprecedented ways.

As a result, theological differences and suspicion dating back hundreds of years have faded in intensity.

“Evangelical Protestants think to themselves ‘I agree with the Catholic who’s pro-life and anti-euthanasia, and that agreement is important and our disagreement over what happens at the Eucharist is less important,'” said Robert Phillips, a political science professor at Wheeling Jesuit University.

In place of the old Catholic-Protestant tension, though, is a new division within those groups themselves. Believers who disagree on abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and other issues find themselves identifying less with their co-religionists and more with those who share their political views.

This has been particularly evident within the Catholic Church. Sen. John Kerry was dogged on the 2004 campaign trail by Catholics critical of his pro-abortion rights position, which contradicts church teaching.

The debate has flared up again this year, as Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for vice president, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, have drawn rebukes from Catholic bishops over their abortion views.

In West Virginia, this division can be seen in Weeks’ criticism of Manchin’s record on abortion.

Both men are abortion foes, but Weeks argues Manchin should do more to limit the procedure, such as supporting legislation to reduce Medicaid funding for abortions.

“There’s a major division in the church over politicians and their positions on abortion,” Weeks said. “I believe you have to stand on principle. That’s what I do.”

Manchin said voters are comfortable with two Catholics running for governor for the same reason they backed Kennedy.

“The people will evaluate your style of governing or your record as a politician, not your religious faith,” Manchin said. “They saw John Kennedy did a good job for everyone, and that’s what they’re looking for.”

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