John Kennedy's Catholicism, perhaps more than any specific legislative or policy issue, dominated the early days of his campaign. The March 1959 interview he gave to Look Magazine, in which he argued that "whatever one's religion may be . . . for the office holder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts," prompted Catholics to accuse him of placing ambition over faith and spurred many non-Catholics to accuse of him of acquiescing to bigotry. Kennedy remained convinced, however, that if he defended his own political positions and legislative record, he could avoid the pitfalls Al Smith confronted in his 1928 campaign when he defended the church's positions as much as his own. Repeatedly Kennedy stressed that his stance on legislative issues relating to the separation of church and state was the strongest of all the candidates: firm opposition to federal aid to parochial schools, refusal to see the Cold War as a "Holy War against godless communists," and, while supportive of the right to use birth control, determined to keep birth control out of foreign aid because "you would get neither birth control nor foreign aid." Kennedy and his aides hoped their conduct during the West Virginia primary had defused the issue. Nevertheless, what columnist Walter Lippman labeled "the problem Kennedy has posed" continued to raise its head throughout the convention (with calls for JFK to assume the bottom rather than top spot on the Democratic ticket) and the campaign.
Many Americans were fearful that a Catholic in the White House would be under the direction of the Vatican, and the Pope, and that the constitutional separation of church and state would be compromised. The campaign wanted to confront this perception in October but, when Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, the nation's most prominent protestant columnist, opposed Kennedy's candidacy on religious grounds in September, both Kennedy and his key aides felt "the floodgates of religious bigotry" had been opened and that immediate action must be taken to stem the tide. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy, in his major attempt "to separate bigots from the honestly fearful," accepted an invitation to address 300 clergymen attending the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. In remarks replayed around the nation for the next seven weeks, Kennedy told his audience that he believed in an "America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." He also then promised to prevent public office from being "humbled by making it an instrument of any religious group" and to resign the office should any spiritual conflict arise." While it did not remove anti-Catholicism from the campaign, Kennedy's performance in Houston helped turn a great deal of the attention back to the issues the candidates wanted to address. Most of anti-Catholic sentiment rested in border and Southern states, and his performance before southern clergy in a southern state helped stem this defection and allowed him to reconcentrate his energies on the northeastern states critical to his victory.
Sources: Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 9- 17; Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1988), pp. 258-61.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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