Catholicism was (almost) John F. Kennedy’s downfall in his campaign for president, according to Shaun Casey of the Wesley Theological Seminary, at a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) event. The way Casey tells the story, it is a miracle that Kennedy even won. Most people either hated or were afraid of the idea of a Catholic president, according to Casey. Catholicism was a mysterious religion steeped in symbolism. Casey says that in the opinion of many people, Catholics were practically European. Casey argues that Americans were afraid that if Kennedy was elected, the Pope would be president—not the man they elected. Casey says, “The fear was if you had an American president in the White House who was Catholic, he would be beholden to the Pope more so than to the voters who might put him into office.”
So, if no one would vote for him because they did not want to vote for a Catholic, how did Kennedy get elected? According to Casey, Kennedy had to (and did) make a few specific actions that secured him the presidency. The first is that he had to sacrifice his religion for the presidency. E.J. Dionne, Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Op-Ed Columnist for the Washington Post, and moderator of the event, goes so far as to say, “Kennedy…had to say his religion wasn’t important to him.” Casey argues that Kennedy had to stand firm on three issues—the three “hot button” issues that Americans were worried that Kennedy would hand to the Catholic Church. Casey says, “He had to be consistent on those three points.” They are:
• “whether or not the federal government should appoint an ambassador to the Vatican,”
• whether or not there should be “federal aid to parochial schools,” and
• “could we give federal aid to help birth control if a foreign country asks for it.”
The second choice Casey holds that helped Kennedy was that he discussed the religion issue rather than avoiding it. Because he assured the American people that he would not “be beholden to the Catholic Church,” and this won him many supporters. Casey says, “The Catholic Church was changing; it was becoming more mainstream American” and less European. He argues that speaking up ultimately helped Kennedy’s case, although his religion ended up hurting more than helping his campaign.
A third decision made by Kennedy was with regards to his preparation. Casey argues that “Kennedy was stunned to learn that liberal Democrats were against him because he was, in fact, Catholic.” He says that Kennedy “got letters from folks saying, ‘I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, I love you, I see you on TV, I agree with you 100% on public policy, but please, please, please, please do me a favor and don’t run for president in 1960 because you’re Catholic and I can’t vote for you.’ And Kennedy was stunned by this.” So Kennedy toured the United States speaking to anti-Catholic leaders and learned what he could about the dislike many Americans felt for the Catholic Church.”
The fourth major contributing factor was actually brought up by Dionne: the West Virginia primary and the depth of Joseph Kennedy’s pocketbook. He argues that without his father’s money, Kennedy wouldn’t have had a prayer in the state of West Virginia, the population of which was only 3% Roman Catholic. Without West Virginia, Casey argues, Kennedy would not have been able to win the nomination. After stating this, He concedes, “I have no doubt that Joe Kennedy opened up the check book and just kept writing checks through West Virginia.” Dionne jokes that “the GNP of the state rose 5% during the primary.”
Ultimately, though, in West Virginia, Joe Kennedy and his famous son, like the Beatles, got by with a little help from their friends—Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana and Skinny D’Amato.