A Catholic in the White House?: Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign
By Thomas J. Carty
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 215 pages
Roman Catholic, Al Smith (Governor of NY, 1923-1928), ran for President of the United States on the Democratic Party ticket in 1928 and was roundly defeated by the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover (41% of popular vote vs. 58%, respectively). Smith’s religious affiliation was a major issue of the election. Protestants feared a Catholic President would answer to the pope and not the U.S. Constitution.
Roman Catholic, Jack Kennedy, campaigned for the presidency in 1960 and won despite some of the same concerns that had dogged Smith. In this short book, Professor Carty examines the opposition Kennedy faced due to his Catholicism. Kennedy quelled many of the Protestant concerns over his candidacy by speaking at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 and insisting that, if elected, he would completely separate his responsibilities as president from his religious faith. In order to further deflate Protestant opposition, he vocally opposed the Catholic hierarchy’s demands for federal aid to parochial schools and the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican. Yet, Kennedy also played up to Catholic voters in the Northeast by frequently citing his religion. “Chairman of the Democratic Party, Paul Butler, demonstrated the potential to convert Kennedy’s Catholicism from a liability to an advantage,” p.84. Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, forbade any reference to Kennedy’s religion among his campaign staffers for fear he would be branded a religious bigot. Many from both ends of the political spectrum at the time were concerned about Kennedy’s Catholicism, including liberal Democrats who viewed pre-Vatican II Catholicism’s political involvement with alarm. Carty frequently cites Billy Graham* and Norman Vincent Peale as popular Protestant ministers who, although personally opposed to a Catholic president, were more concerned about being viewed as intolerant.
I have a few thoughts after reading this book:
- Catholic hegemony was still a very real danger in the first half of the 20th century. Vatican diplomats were still signing concordats with European and Latin American nations granting their church favored status and limiting the freedoms of non-Catholics concurrent with the 1960 American presidential election. Popes had openly condemned democratic republics and freedom of religion. Protestants were well aware of these facts in 1928 and 1960 and their concerns were not ungrounded. Carty mentions these historical realities only briefly. During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic church would soften much of its anti-Protestant militancy.
- Protestants actually had little to fear from Jack Kennedy who was a nominal Catholic at best. It would turn out that President Kennedy had much more interest in securing female companionship when his wife, Jackie, was out of town than he was in seeking advice from Catholic prelates on policy decisions.
- Roman Catholicism teaches the exact same false gospel of sacramental grace and merit that it did in 1960. The vast majority of evangelical pastors understood at the time that Catholicism taught a false gospel and communicated that fact to their congregants. Today, there’s a growing number of evangelical pastors and para-church leaders who consider it distasteful to exclude Roman Catholicism as a Christian entity and seek to gloss over irreconcilable doctrinal differences in the cause of ecumenism.
- One of my earliest childhood memories was driving to the Rochester airport with my family to see Jack Kennedy arrive for a campaign speech at the War Memorial Building on September 28, 1960. Roman Catholics across the country were so proud that one of their own was elected president including my nun teachers. Girls and women were enamored with Kennedy for his handsome, unlike-Ike-ish looks. My Dad, a lifelong Republican, wasn’t taken in by Kennedy’s charm, good looks, and thick head of hair and voted for Nixon.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit for its historical details although the Catholic author doesn’t examine Protestant aversion to Roman Catholicism beyond sectarian prejudice. Because of that, he practices the same kind of one-sided bias he criticizes.
*Over the course of his ministry, Billy Graham would take an increasingly ecumenical approach in regards to Roman Catholicism. Local Catholic prelates would be invited to assist in the planning of his crusades and Catholics who came forward at his “altar calls” would be referred back to Catholic workers.