In 1960 the Worry Was that a Candidate Was too Catholic to Be President Not that He Wasn't Catholic Enough

News at Home
tags: Catholic

Dr. Rupp is a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

At a time when our nation debates the role of religion and politics, let us remember that this month marks the 45th anniversary of the John Kennedy's win in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary--an event that changed the political landscape of American politics. His unexpected landslide victory expanded the parameters of presidential politics as the national press argued that if Catholic Kennedy could win in bible-belt West Virginia with its 5 percent Catholic population (second lowest in the nation), then he could win anywhere.

Kennedy took a risk in the Mountain state. For a defeat would have confirmed the conventional wisdom that Catholicism was a liability in presidential politics. But a victory helped dispel the ghost of Al Smith--the Catholic governor of New York who lost the 1928 general election

Today many of my students have difficulty in comprehending the fears of some voters about a Catholic president. Yet both Martin Luther King Sr. and Norman Vincent Peale expressed reservations in 1960. During that election my generation heard such comments as: "If JFK is elected president, our motto would go from the 'In God we trust' to 'In the Pope, we hope.' " Also repeated was the falacious story of the one-word telegram Smith was said to have sent to the Pope after losing in 1928--"unpack."

To deal with the concerns about his faith Kennedy initiated in West Virginia a strategy of confrontation. In the Wisconsin primary he followed a strategy of silence, but now he spoke directly to the issue declaring, "I do not believe that forty million Americans should lose the right to run for president on the day they were baptized." The candidate effectively framed the issue in terms of fairness: if Catholics could serve in the military, why not in the presidency?

By addressing the issue openly, Kennedy was reminding voters that his defeat would prove their bigotry and implied that his victory would prove their tolerance. This direct strategy would continue into the general election with his famous meeting with the Baptist ministers in Texas.

Kennedy's victory in West Virginia encourages us to see American elections as a history of expanding opportunity. For the discussion in 1960 about a Catholic candidate for president mirrors the terminology used in 2005 when discussing women and minority candidates. "It will happen, but not now" is a familiar phrase trotted out each generation by the so-called "realists" who always find ways to defer the dream of electoral equality.

But while all celebrate the role of the primary in expanding religious toleration in politics, few recognize its role in restraining religion. For Kennedy's victory against religious bigotry, was achieved by a campaign strategy that downplayed his faith.

To ease concerns of Protestant fundamentalists Kennedy wore his faith lightly -- repeatedly reassuring voters that his religion would not influence his presidential action. Such comments provoked criticism from some Catholic leaders and periodicals who thought he was discounting his personal religion to score electoral points. Senator Eugene McCarthy reflected their skepticism when he noted that he was not only"more liberal and more Democratic than John Kennedy," but also "more Catholic."

In West Virginia Kennedy diligently followed the state's "3-F formula"--"Food, Flag and Family." He won by defining himself not as "Kennedy the Catholic," but as "Kennedy the new FDR" in a state suffering high unemployment, "Kennedy the PT boat 109 war hero" in a state that had more VFW posts than high schools, and "Kennedy the Family man" in a state that appreciated the fact that all his relatives blanketed the state ion his behalf. (John Kerry could have learned from the other JFK).

In effect, Kennedy's strategy in 1960 reflected what many Democrat nominees have believed--i.e. economy trumps values. As a bus driver explained to a reporter--"when your first want is a loaf of bread, you don't ask too much about what religion a man's got." A version of the "loaf of bread" thesis of elections was summed in the introduction of Kennedy at a rally in Logan County. "Boys, it is better to eat fish on Friday," explained the speaker, "than no meat seven days a week."

Yet today some Democrats take issue with Kennedy's calculated effort to distance himself from his religion for electoral reasons. They trace the Democratic defeats in presidential elections to the separation of religion from Democratic presidential campaigns. The rash of recent analyses of the last election suggest that religion trumps economics--not the other way around.

We have, in fact, come full circle. In 1960 concern was expressed that Kennedy was too Catholic to be president. In 2004 concern was expressed that John Kerry was not Catholic enough. In 1960 Kennedy was not photographed with priests or taking communion in the state. Jackie Kennedy related a story about the consternation of his staff at a luncheon when an Episcopal minister charged with giving the prayer was mistaken for a Catholic priest. In 2004 some bishops would not offer communion to John Kerry.

So as we celebrate the 45th anniversary of a primary that affirmed the relationship between Catholics and electoral politics, let us acknowledge that questions about the relationship between private faith and presidential politics, if not presidential governance, continues.