John F. Kennedy’s Political Legacy

Two months before the presidential election of November 1960, Norman Vincent Peale turned up the heat. Peale, a popular preacher and author of a best-seller called “The Power of Positive Thinking,” headed a group of 150 prominent Protestants whose thoughts about candidate John F. Kennedy’s religion were something less than positive. 

The Catholic Church, they said, was a “political as well as a religious organization” that sought to demolish America’s wall of separation between church and state. Not only that — it was doubtful whether a Catholic like Kennedy could, if elected president, “withstand the determined efforts of the hierarchy” to work its will in American life. 

Kennedy had known for years that his religion would be an issue if he sought the presidency, and the highly publicized shot by Peale and his friends was neither the first nor the last eruption of anti-Catholicism during his campaign. But the Peale statement appears to have settled it for Kennedy: The religion issue had to be tackled head-on. 

Five days later the candidate tackled it in a major speech to an audience of ministers in Houston. The speech helped get Kennedy elected president, but today, from the perspective of half a century, it’s clear that it did much else besides. 

Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign merits attention in its 50th anniversary year as a classic example of tough, skillful politics, as a turning point in the history of anti-Catholicism in America, and as a crucial first step down a path followed since by hundreds, maybe thousands, of Catholic politicians who — often with notable success — have put daylight between themselves and the teaching of their Church.

Hostility toward Church 

Anti-Catholicism in American politics obviously didn’t emerge for the first time in 1960. The 19th century had witnessed recurring flare-ups of nativist bigotry. As recently as 1928, hostility toward Catholics and their Church was a key factor in the defeat of Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, who sought the presidency as the Democratic candidate that year. 

Smith probably would have lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in any case — politically speaking, the pre-Depression boom years of the 1920s belonged to the GOP — but the bigotry of that day increased the magnitude of his defeat. Hoover got 58.2 percent of the popular vote and 444 Electoral College votes to Smith’s 40.8 percent and 87. 

Two months before the election, a Protestant magazine sounded what by then was a familiar note in some circles by declaring “the mere mention of a Roman Catholic as president” to be cause for alarm. “Today Rome has reached one of its long-sought goals. It well behooves us to emphasize before our people those cardinal principles which came forth as fruit of the Reformation, on which our government is founded. ... Rome has not changed. ... ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’” the editorial writer declared. 

Despite Smith’s crushing defeat, however, his candidacy had the long-term effect of mobilizing big-city Catholics as a national political force. It thus helped set the stage for another try by another Catholic candidate — John F. Kennedy.

Young hotshot 

Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, war hero and scion of a wealthy, politically ambitious Boston Catholic family, began remote preparations for a run at the White House in 1946 with a successful campaign for the House of Representatives. His seat, representing Boston’s 11th district, had earlier been held by two other famed Boston politicians — his grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who also served as mayor of the city, and mayor and governor James Michael Curley, one-time prison inmate and model for the central figure of Edwin O’Connor’s classic tale of Irish Catholic politics in Boston, “The Last Hurrah.” 

Kennedy served three fairly unremarkable terms in the House. Staunchly anti-communist in approved Cold War style, he was moderately conservative on domestic issues and, in the words of a biographer, “a stalwart supporter of the Church.” 

But he and his billionaire father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., had their eyes on greater things. 

In 1952, the young congressman sought the Senate seat held by one of the bluest of Boston blue bloods, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. A major issue in the campaign was Kennedy’s attitude toward Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), already a figure of controversy for his crusade against supposed communist security threats. Kennedy had called McCarthy “a great American patriot,” but he conspicuously failed to invite the senator to campaign for him.  

In November, Kennedy narrowly bested Lodge, scoring one of the few Democratic wins in a year when Democrats lost the presidency and control of Congress. 

Four years later, against his father’s advice, he decided to seek the party’s vice presidential nomination. In those days party conventions still chose candidates, and at the Democratic convention in Chicago Kennedy battled it out with Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who finally won. The Adlai Stevenson-Kefauver ticket was overwhelmed in November by the GOP’s Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but Kennedy’s able performance at the convention and during the campaign meant he’d have to be taken seriously in 1960. 

Battling bias 

In a post-election conversation with his father, the senator pointed to his likely negatives: youth — he would be only 42 that year — and Catholicism. Joe Kennedy exploded. “Just remember,” he told his son, “this country is not a private preserve for Protestants.” The children of Catholic immigrants would be proud to see “one of their own” running for president, he declared, “and that pride will be your spur.” 

American Catholicism was indeed booming in those years, but so were suspicion and hostility toward it. One of the leading voices of this reaction was a lawyer named Paul Blanshard. In 1948, he published a series of articles in The Nation magazine that came out the following year as a book titled “American Freedom and Catholic Power.”  

Arguing that no loyal Catholic could accept “the doctrine of church-state separation in its American constitutional form and remain true to Vatican policy,” he described Boston as “aggressively Catholic” and listed among other “Bostonized” cities Providence, R.I.; Milwaukee; Buffalo, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; and San Francisco. 

The same year saw formation of an organization called Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (Today, less provocatively, it calls itself simply “Americans United.”) POAU had as its aim blocking an imagined takeover by Catholics acting at the direction of the pope. Replying to the group’s critics, the state ministerial association of Alabama called it “thoroughly American.”

Assuaging fears 

In his book “The American Catholic Voter” (St. Augustine’s Press, $19), George J. Marlin summarizes Kennedy’s response to such challenges: “He rescinded his support of aid to parochial schools, reversed his support for diplomatic recognition of the Vatican, and went against the Church hierarchy by endorsing foreign aid to Communist Yugoslavia. He also portrayed himself as a sophisticated Harvard man who was totally different from the parochial Al Smith of 1928.” 

Interviewed by journalist Fletcher Knebel in Look magazine in March 1959, Kennedy said: “Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts — including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.” 

Some Catholics suggested Kennedy was trying too hard to distance himself from the Church. Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorensen said that in Look, Kennedy sounded like “a poor Catholic, a poor politician, a poor moralist and a poor wordsmith.” 

Back in 1956, Sorensen had written a 16-page analysis explaining the importance of Catholic voters to Democratic electoral success and arguing that putting a Catholic like Kennedy on the national ticket would pay off. Circulated under the name of Connecticut state party chairman John M. Bailey, the memo noted that although Catholics were only about 25 percent of the total number of voters, 80 percent of them were in Northern and Midwestern states, comprising 261 electoral votes, just five fewer than needed for victory. 

But arguments like that were hypothetical. Kennedy and his advisers concluded that proving his vote-getting ability in actual fact would require besting real-life opponents in the Democratic primaries of 1960. 

At that time, there were only 16 primaries, and only some of those were truly in play. The first was Wisconsin, on April 5, where Kennedy swamped Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent. Still, the victory wasn’t as convincing as Kennedy people had hoped, since Humphrey won in rural, Protestant areas while their man triumphed in urban settings with large numbers of Catholics. 

In the end, the fight came down to West Virginia, with a mere 3 percent Catholic population. In a televised address in the state the Sunday before the primary, Kennedy said it would be “committing a sin against God” for him to violate constitutional separation of church and state. That plus the smooth-running Kennedy campaign operation brought him 60.8 percent of the votes to Humphrey’s 39.2 percent. 

Kennedy was nominated on the first ballot at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. In his July 15 acceptance speech he returned to the religion theme, promising as president to “reject any kind of religious pressure or obligation.” Seeking to tamp down anti-Catholicism and win in the South, he chose a Southerner, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, as running mate.

Speech in Houston 

But suspicion of a Catholic president continued to bubble up in the campaign that followed, with the Peale group’s statement bringing matters to a boil. The upshot was Kennedy’s crucial Sept. 12 talk to the ministers in Houston. 

A key architect of that remarkable performance was a journalist named John Cogley. At the time an editor of the Catholic magazine Commonweal, Cogley later became a religion writer for The New York Times and covered the Second Vatican Council. Eventually, he left the Catholic Church and joined the Episcopal Church. 

The address he crafted for Kennedy skillfully raised and rejected a series of straw men, as when Kennedy declared his belief in an America “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.” The situation described was hardly likely to arise in any case, and the way of describing it suggested, without quite saying, that Church teaching is only “instructions.” 

Even more important for the future, the candidate repeatedly returned to the idea that religion is a private matter with no bearing upon the decisions of public officials.  

“I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair … and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation,” Kennedy said. Personal convictions would be his guide, and “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 pressures or dictates.” 

Some listeners reacted uneasily to the suggestion that national interest, not morality, should govern presidential decision-making. Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, the prominent American theologian of church and state whose views were influential at Vatican II, declared the candidate’s radical privatizing of religion to be “idiocy.” 

But the speech had its desired result. Anti-Catholicism didn’t disappear from the campaign, but, in the closest popular vote in history up to that time, Kennedy won with 34.2 million votes to 34.1 million for Republican Richard Nixon. 

Eighty percent of Catholic voters cast ballots for Kennedy, up 30 percent from the Catholic support in 1956 for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate of that year. Kennedy’s religion did cost him some support, but even in the South he won 81 electoral votes against 33 for Nixon. William B. Prendergast, a former research director of the Republican National Committee, concludes in his book “The Catholic Voter in American Politics” that there is a “plausible case” for the view that Catholicism was “more of a help than a handicap.”  

Pollster Elmo Roper, reviewing urban voting patterns, was more blunt. “If there was a victim of religious prejudice,” he wrote at the time, “it was Nixon more than Kennedy.” The GOP candidate had specifically rejected the idea of exploiting anti-Catholicism during the campaign and, after the Peale statement, went so far as to defend Kennedy publicly.

Unintended consequences 

Although the 1960 election was hardly the end of anti-Catholicism in the United States, it did write a finish to anti-Catholic bigotry as a decisive factor in presidential politics. But it also did something more. 

Historian Jay P. Dolan calls Kennedy “a symbol of success” for American Catholics. So he was — and still is — in more ways than one. 

That includes his treatment of the relationship of faith to the conduct of a Catholic officeholder, as epitomized in his Houston speech. During the last 50 years, it has provided a model and guide to Catholics seeking to raise a wall of separation between their religion and their political behavior. 

This process was intensified on Jan. 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down rulings in two cases — Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton — suddenly legalizing abortion throughout the United States. The Democratic Party soon declared itself officially pro-choice, presenting Catholic Democrats with a choice between party loyalty and fidelity to the moral teaching of their Church. Many chose party (see sidebar).  

As Ted Sorensen had predicted and the 80 percent Catholic vote for Kennedy in 1960 showed, Catholics overwhelmingly backed their co-religionist that year. Many undoubtedly considered him the better candidate. But for some Catholics at least, their vote was to avenge the sting of anti-Catholicism during the 1928 Al Smith campaign by putting a Catholic in the White House at last. 

Kennedy’s election established that a Catholic could win the nation’s highest office. Since then, numerous Catholics have sought the nomination, and one has run for president — John Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004. Three others — William E. Miller in 1964, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Joseph Biden in 2008 — have run for vice president, unsuccessfully in the case of Miller and Ferraro, successfully in Biden’s case. Kerry, Ferraro and Biden are pro-choice Democrats. 

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), said it is “never licit” for an officeholder to vote for an “intrinsically unjust” law permitting abortion or euthanasia. Individually and as a group, Catholic bishops have challenged the right of a politician to support legal abortion while claiming to be a Catholic in good standing. Some say a politician like that has separated himself from the Church to such a degree that he should not be given Communion. 

But despite the views of the hierarchy and the teaching of the Church, many Catholic politicians go their own way on abortion and other moral issues. 

Kennedy said nothing about all that in 1960, and it is unlikely that he foresaw the long-range consequences of his words. But his speech to the Houston ministers during a heated political campaign in which anti-Catholicism was rampant opened a door to Catholic politicians who find it convenient to ignore the Church. Many others have stampeded through that door in the last 50 years.  

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Party Vs. Morality (sidebar)

Of the Catholic politicians who chose loyalty to the Democratic Party over fidelity to Church moral teaching, three deserve special mention: the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. 

Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy: John F. Kennedy’s youngest brother occupied the Senate seat once held by John for 45 years until his death from brain cancer last August. Originally he was a self-declared opponent of abortion and a defender of unborn human life. In 1971 he wrote, “Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.” 

After the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, though, Kennedy became an outspoken supporter of legalized abortion. His high visibility as heir to his family’s political legacy and the country’s best-known Catholic politician gave him iconic status among pro-choicers. 

Mario Cuomo: Governor of New York from 1983 to 1994 and often mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, he laid out his views in a major speech on Sept. 13, 1984, at the University of Notre Dame. With help from Catholic theologians, Cuomo argued that a practicing Catholic politician like himself could legitimately be personally opposed to abortion while accepting abortion as a matter of law and policy. 

Maintaining that neither a constitutional amendment to ban abortion nor even one returning the issue to the states was feasible, the governor said Catholics who oppose abortion should concentrate on solutions to problems like poverty that lead some women to have abortions. “Better than any law or rule or threat of punishment would be the moving strength of our own good example,” he piously declared. 

Nancy Pelosi: Current speaker of the House of Representatives expressed her views in an interview in the 2009 year-end issue of Newsweek. She defended her position in a way less coherent but fundamentally the same as John Kennedy’s in speaking about conscience. While expressing regret at the “difference of opinion” — on abortion and gay rights — between herself and the Church, Pelosi nonetheless declared: “I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have an opportunity to exercise their free will.”

Speech's Political, Religious Flaws (sidebar)

In a March 1 speech at Houston Baptist University, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver pointed out the political and religious flaws of John F. Kennedy’s seminal 1960 address in Houston. What follows are excerpts from the archbishop’s speech, titled “The Vocations of Christians in American Public Life.” 

Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute.” Given the distrust historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were shrewdly chosen. The trouble is, the Constitution doesn’t say that. The Founders and Framers didn’t believe that. And the history of the United States contradicts that. Unlike revolutionary leaders in Europe, the American Founders looked quite favorably on religion. Many were believers themselves. In fact, one of the main reasons for writing the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause ­— the clause that bars any federally endorsed Church — was that several of the Constitution’s Framers wanted to protect the publicly funded Protestant Churches they already had in their own states. John Adams actually preferred a “mild and equitable establishment of religion” and helped draft that into the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. 

America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government. Their reasons were practical. In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive. Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people. Thus, the modern, drastic sense of the “separation of Church and state” had little force in American consciousness until Justice Hugo Black excavated it from a private letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association. Justice Black then used Jefferson’s phrase in the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947. ... 

The Houston remarks also created a religious problem. To his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as president should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my Church in order to win this election.” But in its effect the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside religious pressures or dictates.” 

To read all of the archbishop’s address, visit