John F. Kennedy Election Lives On

Fifty years ago, November 8, 1960, U. S. Senator John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., a Catholic, was elected President of the United States, winning 49.72 percent of the popular vote and 303 votes to 234 in the Electoral College.

Overnight, having a Catholic on a national ticket switched from a no-no to very good — because Kennedy won, but also because he received so many Catholic votes. From 1964 to 1972, four Catholics were nominated for Vice President, one Republican and three Democrats. For a time, a Catholic was the Democrats’ Presidential frontrunner in 1972. Then, also in 1972, came the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion on demand. Catholic politicians had to take sides. An entirely new dynamic entered the situation.

Catholic candidates were taboo after New York Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith’s 1928 Presidential defeat, and his Catholicism was seen, not unrealistically, as a serious reason. John Kennedy thought that he could succeed where Smith had failed, by carrying most of the South and the East and Midwest, the Democrats’ time-tested formula for victory.

Several factors were at play in 1960, such as the Cold War and the personalities of Kennedy and of his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. However, Kennedy’s Catholicism worried many, and for many it preempted all else. Recently, several informative books on the 1960 race have been written. The Making of a Catholic President, by Shaun A. Casey, published by the Oxford University Press in 2009, spotlights the religious question and is extensively resourced.

In 1960, Anti-Catholicism was alive and well across the country but especially in the South where, outside Louisiana, Catholics were few. Kennedy reasoned that he could never bring bigots over to him, but that he had a chance with less-bitter Protestants. And, most critically, he knew that he had to exceed Smith’s totals with Catholic voters, high even as those had been.

Democrats had a huge advantage in the South. Generally forgotten today is the Democrats’ historically “Solid South.” Since Reconstruction, Republicans had been as rare as monuments to General Sherman in the old Confederacy. However, in 1948, thanks to Harry S Truman’s civil rights policy, four Southern states deserted the Democrats and went to a third candidate. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia in 1952, and then added Louisiana to the list in 1956. Among Southerners, voting Republican was no longer a sin that cried to heaven for vengeance.

The South’s supreme issue was equality for blacks. In 1954, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, rendering racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, threatened the South’s “way of life.” The Democratic platform supported Brown. Kennedy knew that he had to sidestep this issue in the South, where few blacks were allowed to vote, without estranging black voters outside the South. (Unbelievably, he eventually did just that.)

Kennedy’s running mate, the roughest and toughest Southern politician of them all, U. S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, could only twist arms so far. Kennedy — critically — had to overcome anti-Catholicism himself to secure the powerful, entrenched Democratic organizations in the South, contributions from wealthy Southerners, and of course votes.

In 1960, Kennedy’s sexual improprieties still were a secret. The public, Catholics included, saw him as an average Irish-American Catholic. Arthur M. Schlesinger, the author of A Thousand Days, at times called Kennedy’s best biography, and a Kennedy intimate in the White House days, not himself a Catholic, wrote that Kennedy almost always attended Sunday Mass, and that his associates thought that he found solace at Mass. He reported that Kennedy abstained from meat on Fridays. Schlesinger also noted that Kennedy had very little formal Catholic education. (Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spent more time in Catholic schools than he did.)

Family wealth, education in elite non-Catholic schools, and naval and elected public service had associated him with diverse backgrounds, but the intensely Irish-American Catholic culture of Boston was his home, in more ways than one. His family’s generosity to Catholic institutions was well known.

So much for Kennedy’s image. A mood about politics and religion was very strong among many, maybe most, American Catholics, and it was not new. Most American Catholics had heard from the cradle onward of forebearers, some of whom had come to the United States not that long ago, who had endured religious persecution back in Europe. In America, Catholics long had had to pull, stretch and kick to reach the next step on the American economic, political and social ladder.

American Catholics celebrated July 4 with gusto, hurried to enlist when war came, and trumpeted the glories of the American democracy, most especially the separation of church and state. All this showed that Catholic citizens were good Americans.

Protestants wanted to keep their historic hold on American culture. Everlasting within Protestant hostilities toward the Catholic religion were worries that the Roman pontiffs intended to control the world. American Catholics never distanced themselves from Rome, interesting in the face of the anti-clericalism that so troubled the European Church, but there emerged a distinction between “faith and morals” and politics. Maybe it was an unintended consequence, as “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…,” never intellectually dissected, nor well exegeted, was preached from pulpits and taught in parochial schools.

Over the years, on balance, the American bishops seldom addressed political issues. At very important times they were divided or silent, such as prior to and during the Civil War when they were not united about slavery. More often than not, they spoke to institutional matters.

In September 1908, in The North American Review, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, at that time virtually the spokesman for the Church in this country, wrote, “If the Pope were to issue commands in purely civil matters, he would be offending not only against civil society, but against God, and violating an authority as truly from God as his own. Any Catholic who clearly recognized this would not be bound to obey the Pope; rather his conscience would bind him absolutely to disobey, because with Catholics, conscience is the supreme law which under no circumstances can we ever lawfully disobey.” To be fair, and complete, the cardinal also said that Catholics had to form their consciences in light of Church teaching.

Then came Al Smith. He differed from the American bishops in some issues, or at least, it might be construed. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1927, in what became his magna carta on religion and politics, Smith said, “Were a conflict to arise between religious principle and political duty in the United States, except on the unthinkable hypothesis that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men…no ecclesiastical tribunal…would have the slightest claim upon the obedience of Catholic communicants in the resolution of such a conflict.”

He further stated that papal encyclicals were not articles of faith, and in any event, quoting a theology professor at The Catholic University of America, Father John A. Ryan, they applied only to public policy in “Catholic states.” Elsewhere, “tolerance” was the rule. Referring to the “Render to Caesar…” verse, again quoting Father Ryan, Smith said, “The Catholic doctrine concedes, nay maintains, that the state is coordinate with the Church and equally independent and separate in its own distinct sphere.” Smith listed a litany of American episcopal statements over the years that endorsed separation of church and state.

About the same time as Smith’s article, Pope Pius XI’s vision, called Catholic Action, was gaining momentum. By challenging lay Catholics to imbue society — beginning with their own professions, industries, households and indeed their politics — with Catholic principles, it led to a theology of lay Catholic witness, in which laity were called upon, and expected, to do more than pay, pray and obey. Its child was the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on lay witness. Catholics had to form their consciences, truly enlightened by Church teaching, but also they had to act for themselves as their consciences dictated.

True, inspired by the rich moral teachings of the social encyclicals, many Catholics had demanded Catholic values in commerce and industry, but there was the practical consideration. The vast majority of American Catholics were engaged in industry. Advocating for workers’ best economic interests was easy to do.

There were other moments, such as Father Charles Coughlin’s following of Catholics in the 1930s, but overall Catholic Americans had avoided making waves. At the same time, by 1960, Catholic–American culture was changing. Better educated and benefitting from all that had happened in the Second World War, Catholics more and more were moving into, and seeing themselves as part of, the American mainstream.

In 1948, the American bishops issued a document, in essence going to the notion of Catholic Action. Appealing to lay Catholics “to seek in their faith an inspiration and a guide in making an informed contribution to good citizenship,” they also upheld the separation of church and state, a position hardly then preferred everywhere under the Catholic sun.

A new Catholic intellectual life was budding. American Catholics had come to see a personal reflection on, and timely application of, principles, precisely as they understood these principles, as their option.

When a group of Protestant ministers, almost all fundamentalists, asked Kennedy to speak to them in Houston expressly about Catholicism and American government, he accepted.

Kennedy’s chief speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, was a Unitarian. His own memoirs show his fretting about Catholic “power.” The Texas political leadership, Democratic from the governor down to the dogcatchers, which had endorsed Kennedy, certainly knew about anti-Catholicism. The campaign therefore anticipated what would be the ministers’ concerns.

But, what about Catholics? Retired Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, of New Orleans, a friend of both John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who preached at both their funeral Masses, wrote in his autobiography The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, recently published by Our Sunday Visitor, that Kennedy speech writers asked Commonweal editor John Cogley to recommend bona fide Catholic theologians who might advise on the religious issue.

Cogley proposed Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, then emerging as an expert in the matter of Catholic theology and the American system. Kennedy admired Father Murray, whose book, We Hold These Truths, had just been published and was favorably reviewed. (The book had put Father Murray on the cover of Time.) In addition, Cogley suggested Pittsburgh Bishop John J. Wright, once a Boston priest, regarded also as a scholar.

Archbishop Hannan recalls that Kennedy speechwriters read the final draft for Houston over the telephone to both Bishop Wright and Father Murray. The archbishop says that this was not the best way to communicate the text to them. He says that he himself had some misgivings about the text. But, as far as what is now known, none voiced basic problems with it.

(Little record remains of the interchange among Sorensen, other Kennedy aides, Cogley, Bishop Wright and Father Murray on the speech. Bishop Wright did furnish many pages of comment and advice to Kennedy on several issues, pages on file now in Boston at the Kennedy Presidential Library.)

For Protestants, Kennedy said in Houston that he did not speak for the Church on “public matters,” and that the Church did not speak for him. Reaching to Catholics, he identified himself as a Catholic and referred to “my” religion and “my” Church. He said, “I will not disavow my Church.” He pledged that, were he President, if a conflict arose between national interests and his own “conscience,” he would resign.

After the Houston speech, despite blanket coverage, no Catholic bishop, Catholic academic, Catholic organization, or Catholic periodical, including Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and The Priest magazine, even hinted at disagreeing with what Kennedy said in Texas. (However, to be fair, the general Catholic thinking was to be careful, lest Protestant charges that the Catholic Church meddles in politics be confirmed.)

After Houston, more reasonable Protestants, according to polls, re-thought anti-Catholicism — to the Democrats’ favor. Kennedy’s words energized his campaign in the South. Dramatically, Catholics began to turn to him. Kennedy’s campaign worked hard to prompt this reaction. While it rarely re-played the Houston speech in predominantly Protestant media markets, it again and again broadcast the speech in places where Catholics were numerous.

Houston let Catholics know that they were potential targets of a still existing bigotry, just as their parents and grandparents had been targets in spite of all that they, in the war, and their forebearers had given for the country, just as the Kennedy family had given with one son killed in action in Europe and John Kennedy wounded in the Pacific.

This is the most important point: Kennedy’s thinking reflected what many Catholics thought about church–state.

On Nov. 8, the Kennedy–Johnson ticket took most of the South. Louisiana and Texas returned to the Democrats. Georgia went to Kennedy almost two to one, better than Massachusetts. Barely losing only Ohio, he took the large industrial states, often thanks to large turnouts of Catholics. Pundits joked about cloistered nuns who left their convents to vote for him, for some their first excursion since they had gone to vote for Smith. He did all right among Protestants, sweeping past Smith’s 1928 totals.

Catholics, here and abroad, delighted in Kennedy’s victory. The Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano congratulated him. From then until his November 22, 1963, assassination, Kennedy never substantially, publicly disagreed with the Church on any theological point, and on few public matters, public aid to parochial schools being one. Neither Roman nor American Church leaders criticized him, at least openly. Then again, no one then advocated abortion on demand, fetal stem-cell research or same-sex marriage, or challenged conscription or immigration.

Kennedy was cautious about contacts with the hierarchy, but Sunday newscasts reported that the President had been at Mass that morning. He even recessed an urgent meeting during the Cuban missile crisis to attend Sunday Mass at Washington’s St. Stephen’s Church, his unofficial “parish.”

White House chefs kept meat off Friday menus. Kennedy’s newborn children received Catholic baptisms. A cardinal buried his infant son. Notre Dame University gave him the Laetare Medal. The Knights of Columbus honored him as a brother knight; his picture adorned the cover of Columbia, the KC magazine. Catholic churches placed plaques on pews where he had knelt. Pope John XXIII famously addressed the First Lady simply as “Jacqueline,” formality aside. He sent Kennedy an autographed copy of the celebrated encyclical Pacem in Terris.

Kennedy named Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the nation’s second highest ranking official, to represent the United States at Pope John’s funeral, an American gesture never before accorded the papacy. At Pope Paul VI’s installation three weeks later, Chief Justice Earl Warren represented the President, another unprecedented sign of regard for the papacy. Within the month, Kennedy himself met Paul VI, whom he already knew, in the Vatican, being the third sitting American President to be received by a pontiff. Kennedy studiously refrained from kissing the papal ring, saying that he came as head of a pluralistic state, not as a Catholic individual, but the meeting was cordial.

At all these times, American Catholics smiled.

Kennedy’s assassination left American Catholics griefstricken. Paul VI gave American priests the extraordinary privilege of celebrating requiem Masses for him on the Sunday following his death, rather than the liturgy of the day. The Pope sent his personal representative, Cardinal Angelo dell’Acqua, to Kennedy’s funeral Mass in Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, another gesture unprecedented until former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Other cardinals and bishops filled the sanctuary. (The space on the main aisle where his catafalque rested still is marked.)

Now, Kennedy’s image of the Catholic knight in shining armor is long gone, for many anyway, shattered by stories of his own moral infractions, and especially, by his relatives’ championing of positions at odds with the Church, as well as the passage of time.

The drama of the 1960 campaign, and his history-making election, confirmed, reinforced and, for many, embedded and validated the attitude among many Catholic Americans that religion is here, politics is there. Still,
Kennedy did not invent this attitude. It was widespread, longstanding and well rooted, before he came. It was not rebuked in his time, and it has not yet convincingly been answered, at least not universally.

Had Kennedy lost, and had Catholicism been seen as the cause, how many Catholic politicians subsequently would have had the nerve to associate publicly with Church teaching?

Regardless, now more than a few Catholic politicians, and many American Catholic voters, say that voting, at the polls or in legislatures, is a “personal matter,” putting other considerations on par with, or higher than, Catholic values. As a result, today all ten states with the highest percentages of Catholic voters are represented by U.S. Senators who favor abortion on demand, while the Catholic Church’s position on abortion saturates public knowledge.

Since Roe, all three candidates identifying themselves as Roman Catholics who have been nominated for national office have advocated legal abortions. In 2004, one of them, U. S. Senator John F. Kerry, D-Mass., running for President, carried eight of the ten states with the highest percentages of Catholics. (He did not have an overall majority among Catholics.) Another, U.S. Senator Joseph W. Biden, D-Del., was elected Vice President in 2008, on Barack Obama’s ticket. Without qualifying the data, Obama and Biden had a majority of Catholic voters.

Other American Catholics now see politicians who identify themselves as Catholics but advocate legal abortions as a grave scandal, the means to intrin-sically evil ends, and Catholics who vote for them equally at fault.

So, what is Catholic citizenship?

Ultimately, more deeply, what does Catholicism mean?

Is it cultural, just a charming accumulation of warm feelings, and a slowly trickling, meandering channel for strictly personal, detached, preferably secret, piety?

What is the Church?

What is Revelation?

What is morality?

What is conscience?

What is faith?

What does it mean to be redeemed, but also as true disciples, to redeem?

Is the Gospel, specifically as understood by the Roman Catholic Church, as Pius XI’s Catholic Action would have insisted, the uniquely satisfying refreshment for every aspect of human life?

Leave these questions unanswered. Bring on the rampant secularism, the decline of institutionalized religion, years of ineffective catechesis, traces of the everlasting American Catholic yearning to be included, and the Almighty Me, Myself, and I philosophy, and we have what now we have. TP

Msgr. Campion, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., and editor of The Priest magazine