Kennedy: the man who led Catholics to a new frontier

Watershed for Catholics

The election of John F Kennedy as the thirty-fifth President of the United States was a watershed for that country’s Catholics, but 50 years after his assassination, America is a very different place, with very different political battles fought over Catholicism.

- The Tablet

The presidential race of 1960 is the only one in American history in which a candidate’s religion became a decisive campaign issue. The country had never elected a Roman Catholic to the nation’s highest office, and for a great many Protestants the prospect represented a threat to religious liberty because Catholics, in their view, were subject to a command-and-obey religious system. 

The assumption that the United States was essentially a Protestant country ran deep among both liberal “main line” Protestants (though influential voices from this camp such as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ­disagreed) and the mostly Southern ­fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who, unlike Niebuhr and other ecumenical Northerners, rarely socialised with Roman Catholics, much less voted for one.

Thus, while American Catholics celebrated John F Kennedy’s election as a breakthrough for their religion, the 1960 campaign provoked a painful catharsis for those American Protestants who still clung to the assumption that the United States always was and should remain essentially Protestant in principle, polity and national profile.

It is difficult for Americans of subsequent generations to realise what Kennedy as a Catholic was up against. In their Democratic primary race against Hubert H. Humphrey, a jovial, bias-free senator from Minnesota, Kennedy strategists figured they had to win West Virginia, a mountainous border state settled by mostly Scots-Irish who typically voted Democrat, as proof that a Catholic could win in an overwhelmingly Protestant state. 

Early in the West Virginia primary, polls showed Kennedy leading Humphrey by 17 percentage points. But as primary day drew closer, his lead dwindled to a statistical tie. What happened? Protestant preachers had alerted West Virginians that the handsome young senator from Massachusetts was a Catholic. 

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