Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


JFK, Catholicism, and the 1960 Election

The American Founding ushered in a “new order for the ages” that included the unprecedented and remarkable natural right of liberty of conscience.  The First Amendment protected this universal right of all humans and banned Congress from establishing an official religion.  The Constitution also banned all religious tests for national office.

But the constitutional protections of religious liberty could not prevent popular prejudice from rearing its ugly head during the 1960 election. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was a dashing young contender for the Democratic nomination who faced an American electorate which feared that a Roman Catholic president would follow the dictates of the pope in Rome. Anti-Catholicism had tarnished the American experiment in liberty throughout the country’s history and would do so again in 1960.

Plenty of evidence pointed to this widespread anti-Catholicism that Kennedy would have to overcome to have a chance of winning his party’s nomination not to mention the presidency. In a national poll, a quarter of the American people bluntly stated that they would not vote for a Catholic regardless of how qualified he was.  Moreover, anti-Catholicism was not merely a popular prejudice among the electorate. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most prominent liberals of the time, declared that she did not think that Kennedy could separate his religion from the office.

Although Kennedy would have to combat anti-Catholicism in 1960, it was hardly the only issue that raised questions about his ability to serve as president. Many commentators were concerned about his youth and executive inexperience, and considered him an intellectual lightweight. There was a universal suspicion that his wealthy father had engineered all of his political and other successes. As Harry Truman quipped, “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of, it’s the pop.” Finally, he faced the greatest opposition from progressive liberals in his own party because of his lukewarm support of social programs, civil rights, and silence on McCarthyism.

Kennedy announced his run on January 2, 1960, in the Senate Caucus Room to a huge throng of supporters. He promised a “more vital life for our people” after the supposed purposeless drift of affluenza during the 1950s in which he thought the country had lost its moral purpose and way. Reporters immediately raised the issue of his faith. Kennedy responded that the only substantive questions about any candidate’s faith should be: “Does a candidate believe in the Constitution, does he believe in the First Amendment, does he believe in separation of church and state.”

The religious issue hounded Kennedy throughout the primaries that spring especially in heavily Protestant Wisconsin.  The biased press in that state and others constantly reminded voters of Kennedy’s Catholicism.  He became so frustrated that he exploded when CBS newsman, Walter Cronkite, asked him about his religion and the Wisconsin primary.  Although West Virginia had only a very small percentage of Roman Catholics, Kennedy decided to face the issue head on in that primary.

Kennedy defended his patriotism and religion while campaigning in West Virginia.  He told crowds that his Catholicism had not prevented his service in the Pacific during World War II, nor had it precluded him from public service in Congress.  The strategy worked as Kennedy won in a landslide and took several other primaries.  In mid-July, he was nominated at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

The Republicans nominated Vice-President Richard Nixon as their candidate.  Nixon had served in both the House and Senate, and had been a member of House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communists in the United States, most notably spy Alger Hiss.  Even though President Dwight Eisenhower did not think much of Nixon and did not lend him much public support, the vice-president had gained a great amount of foreign policy experience.  In the campaign, Nixon attacked his opponent as too young and inexperienced especially on foreign policy.

Kennedy not only ran against Nixon but against bedeviling questions about his faith.  In early September, a group of 150 Protestant ministers questioned Kennedy’s ability to separate his religious beliefs from temporal politics on the pages of the New York Times—though, of course, they were engaging in politics.  Kennedy had had enough and delivered a speech to another group of ministers in Houston a week later.

Kennedy’s speech was meant to confront as well as mollify.  He posited that America was a country “where the separation of church and state is absolute.”  He also promised that he would be a president “whose views on religion are his own private affair.”  Finally, he asserted that he was not the “Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be Catholic.  I do not speak for my church on public matters—and my church does not speak for me.”  He ended the speech with an emotional appeal that, “If this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000 Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser.”

Kennedy and Nixon debated each other in a series of televised debates in which the new medium helped shape the election. Kennedy was a handsome, articulate candidate, while Nixon appeared haggard and aggressive on television.  They debated the sluggish economy, a perceived nuclear “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, and foreign policy generally during the Cold War.  The significance of the debates on the minds of voters has sometimes been exaggerated, but the importance of the media in presidential elections would only grow in the coming decades.

The election of 1960 was extremely close as Kennedy won the popular vote by a narrow margin of some 120,000 votes out of 69 million cast. Kennedy also won the Electoral College vote by a slender margin of 303 to 219.  Kennedy’s religion was a decisive factor in the 1960 election.  John F. Kennedy proved that a Roman Catholic could challenge a popular prejudice and be elected president.

Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.

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