Saturday, November 16, 2013

The First Catholic President

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches, almost every aspect of Kennedy's life and career is being reexamined. It seems only fitting, therefore, to recall something that seemed a very big deal then - namely, Kennedy's religion. 

In the run-up to the 1960 election, it was widely taken for granted that Kennedy's Catholicism was an issue. Conventional wisdom still considered America a Protestant country. That was starting to change. Witness Will Herberg's now classic 1955 book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Obviously, the fact that Kennedy was elected illustrated just how much it had changed. Before 1960, however, none of that was obvious. Kenedy's primary strategy - especially in West Virginia - was predicated on the need to prove a Catholic could in fact carry Protestant votes and was actually electable.

The 1960 campaign highlighted the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in American society. Episcopal bishop (and former Roman Catholic) James A. Pike's 1960 book, A Roman Catholic in the White House, warned Protestant American against the supposed danger of a Catholic President, as did organizations like Protestants and Other United for Separation of Church and State.
In the end., of course, they failed and Kennedy won in spite of his religion. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to be elected President of the United States in part because he amassed 83% of the Catholic vote – in contrast to the 45% won by the Democratic candidate (Adlai Stevenson) four years previously – while still holding on to approximately the same percentage of the white Protestant vote the Democrats had garnered in 1956. In other words, Kennedy got Catholics to vote for him in overwhelming numbers, without scaring too many Protestant voters away. 
One turning point - perhaps as important in its own way as the famous First Debate, had been Kennedy's September speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, with his famous statement: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and sate is absolute."
It was JFK’s successful strategy - not just that night but throughout the campaign - to turn the anti-Catholic argument on its head and paint his opponents on this issue as the ones who were being un-American. He did it well, and he was right – as well as successful – in doing so. Since then, many have alleged that he contributed to our present predicament in which one’s religious beliefs are increasingly seen as one’s purely private quirks which ought to have no impact on one’s views on maters of public policy, a view completely at variance with the entire previous trajectory of American history. As historian Mark Massa later expressed it, Kennedy secularized “the American presidency in order to win it” (“A Catholic for President? John F. Kennedy and the ‘Secular’ Theology of the Houston Speech, 1960,” Journal of Church and State, Spring 1997).

That can be overstated, however. As President, Kennedy was clearly a Catholic. Like other American Catholics, he and his family attended Mass.  That and what one ate on Friday were the two obvious external markers of being a Catholic. In other respects, many Catholics were already quite indistinguishable from their Protestant neighbors. In Kennedy's case, certainly no one would mistake him for a product of Catholic schools or the so-called "Catholic Ghetto." In terms of policy, he was as "secular" as anyone else. Indeed, on the one significant denominational political issue - government aid to religious schools - Kennedy was opposed to the Church's position. In Kennedy's time, however, apart from that one issue and very unlike today, there was not the same level of cultural polarization we now take for granted on religious issues. After all, this was still an overwhelmingly religious country, characterized by a great deal of denominational diversity to be sure, but united by a deep degree of moral consensus. 
In its editorial on the day after his election, The New York Daily News referred to his win as having "dropped a hydrogen bomb" on the notion that a Catholic could not be elected President. And so it did. A candidate's Catholicism has never since been seen as in itself a serious obstacle. Neither really as it turned out  was Judaism in the case of Joe Lieberman or Mormonism in the case of Mitt Romney.
When Kennedy died, his funeral service at Washington's Saint Matthew's Cathedral (photo) was visibly Catholic. Most people had by then come to terms with the idea that this was no longer just a Protestant country. In that respect the election of our first Catholic President proved quite a success - quite different in that regard from the situation today with our first non-white President, when the fact that this is no longer just a white man's country has seemed harder for some to accept.

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