Identity Politics in 1960

How JFK Lost the Catholic Church but Won the Jewish Vote in 1960
Then, again.
Nov. 21 2012 6:45 AM

Identity Politics in 1960

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How Jack Kennedy lost the Catholic Church—but won the Jewish vote.

U.S. Democratic nominee, Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline
U.S. Democratic nominee, Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline

Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

The following is the second of three articles adapted from David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, out now from the Penguin Press.

The only way to put to rest Democratic Party leaders’ fears that Protestants would not vote for a Catholic was for Jack Kennedy to prove the opposite by doing well in the primaries. The first major primary was in Wisconsin, where Catholics were in a sizable minority at about 30 percent. “That is going to be a real tough fight—but we should win,” Joseph Kennedy wrote his Vatican-insider friend Enrico Galeazzi. “Then he goes from there to West Virginia where the Catholics total around three or four percent. They may use the religious issue there and it may be very, very tough.”

In the midst of campaigning in West Virginia, Sen. Kennedy returned to Washington to deliver a major speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in yet another attempt to counter the anti-Catholic literature, speeches, whispers, and rumors that he feared were pushing every other issue to the side. He was not, he declared as emphatically as he could, “the Catholic candidate for President. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that Church speaks for me. My record ... has displeased some prominent Catholic clergymen and organizations and it has been approved by others. The fact is that the Catholic Church is not a monolith—it is committed in this country to the principles of individual liberty.” He was even more emphatic back on the campaign trail in West Virginia. In his final television speech, he repeated again that as president he “would not take orders from any Pope, Cardinal, Bishop or priest, nor would they try to give me orders. ... If any Pope attempted to influence me as President, I would have to tell him it was completely improper.”

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On May 10, 1960, Jack Kennedy won the West Virginia primary with 61 percent of the vote, which should have, but did not, put to rest the question of whether Protestants would vote for a Catholic. A week later, he won the Maryland primary with 70 percent, his ninth consecutive primary victory. The New York Times reported the Maryland primary victory on the front page. Just below, it ran a second front-page story with a Rome dateline: “Vatican Paper Proclaims Right of Church to Role in Politics.” The official Vatican newspaper had declared in an editorial that “the Roman Catholic hierarchy had ‘the right and the duty to intervene’ in the political field to guide its flock. It rejected what it termed ‘the absurd split of conscience between the believer and the citizen.’ ... The Roman Catholic religion, the editorial asserted, is a force that ‘commits and guides the entire existence of man.’ The Catholic, it went on, ‘may never disregard the teaching and directions of the church but must inspire his private and public conduct in every sphere of his activity by the laws, instructions and teachings of the hierarchy.’ ”

The timing, placement, language, and emphasis of the Vatican paper editorial called into question everything Jack Kennedy had been saying about his religion. Pierre Salinger, his press spokesman, responded at once that Sen. Kennedy supported “the principle of separation of church and state as provided in the United States Constitution [and] that this support is not subject to change under any condition.” His statement was buried on Page 31.

The following day, May 19, lest there be any confusion, the New York Times confirmed that the editorial in the Vatican paper had “been given to the newspaper for publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Department of the Church’s Central Government that assists the Pope in political business,” and that earlier reports that the “editorialist ... did not have in mind the United States Presidential campaign” were inaccurate.

Joseph Kennedy was both distressed and baffled. His fears that the church was out to defeat his son were now fully confirmed. “You must have been aware,” he wrote Galeazzi, “of how terribly shocked we were by that editorial in L’Osservatore Romano on the separation of church and state. ... It was a bad shaking up and it did not do us a bit of good. I cannot understand why my two friends, Tardini [the Vatican secretary of state] and the other man [another papal adviser on foreign affairs] could ever have let anything like that come to America when it could create so much difficulty over something that has already been established as a fact here in the country, namely, the separation of church and state.”

The Vatican pronouncement, fortunately, did not do the immediate harm that Kennedy had feared it might. Though featured in the New York Times, the story was buried elsewhere by the news that Sen. Kennedy had won the Maryland primary. For his father, it was an omen.

“I came home,” Kennedy wrote in a letter on Sept. 9, “to find the campaign not between a Democrat and a Republican, but between a Catholic and a Protestant. How effectively we can work against it, I do not know. Jack gave it a bad licking in West Virginia and we are confident that we can lick it now. But with the Baptist ministers working in the pulpit every Sunday, it is going to be tough. All I can say is that they have a hell of a nerve to be talking about freedom for the world when we have this kind of a condition right here in our own country. It seems to me that it is more important than ever to fight this thing with everything we have. And that is what we are going to do.”

On Sept. 7, Norman Vincent Peale, whom the New York Times identified as “an avowed supporter of Vice President Nixon,” announced the organization of the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, comprising 150 leading clergymen “more or less representative of the evangelical, conservative Protestants,” including the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. They were united in their belief that Protestants had “legitimate grounds for concern about having a Catholic in the White House.”

Sen. Kennedy was forced to confront head-on the subject he had hoped, after his win in the Democratic primaries, might be laid to rest. He did so by accepting an invitation to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a gathering of Protestant leaders, many of them evangelicals. He began his address by declaring that while he was going to speak on the “so-called religious issue,” he believed that there were “far more critical issues in the 1960 election.” Still, “because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues ... have been obscured—perhaps deliberately.” He proceeded to say what he had been saying for almost two years: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. ... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish ... and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” He reminded his audience that no one had asked him or his brother whether they “might have a ‘divided loyalty’ ” when they fought—and his brother died—in the Second World War and that at the Battle of the Alamo, “side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes and McCafferty and Bailey and Bedillio and Carey—but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test there.” Knowing that this might be his best and perhaps last chance to put to rest the religious issue, he arranged to have the speech—and question period—broadcast nationwide.

Though Jack did brilliantly in Houston, it was almost taken for granted now that he was going to lose Protestant votes that usually went Democratic and would have to compensate by polling a larger than usual big-city Catholic vote. Unfortunately, it appeared as late as six weeks before the election that Catholic voters might not be solidly behind the Democratic candidate. “City Catholics Split on Election,” the New York Times reported in a Page One headline on Sept. 20, confirming Joseph Kennedy’s worst nightmares. “If Jack Kennedy thinks he has the Catholic vote in his back pocket, he’s wrong,” an Irish Catholic party official was quoted as telling the Times reporter. Neither of the two major Catholic papers—the Catholic News, the New York diocesan newspaper, and the Tablet, the Brooklyn diocesan paper—“has ever been suspected of favoring either the Democrats or Senator Kennedy.” The Catholic News had put a photograph of Nixon visiting with a group of nuns on its cover but had never so honored Sen. Kennedy.  The Tablet had denounced the Democratic Party platform in an editorial in July and had had nothing positive of any sort to say about Jack Kennedy. When both candidates appeared at the Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf on Oct. 19, 1960, an event organized and presided over by Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, Nixon received far greater applause. It was becoming abundantly clear that he was the cardinal’s favored candidate.

On Oct. 22, two weeks before Election Day, the religious issue, which had been submerged during the debates, was brought to the surface again, this time not by the organized Protestant opposition, but by the Catholic bishops in Puerto Rico, who issued a pastoral leader forbidding Catholics to vote for Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín’s Popular Democratic Party and implying that they should vote for the newly formed Christian Action Party instead. Cardinal Cushing declared immediately that what had occurred in Puerto Rico was an anomaly, that “ecclesiastical authority here would not attempt to dictate the political voting of citizens.” Cardinal Spellman did not criticize the bishops or their letter, but he remarked that Catholic voters who did not obey the bishops’ directive would not be committing a sin.

“Senator Kennedy,” presidential adviser Ted Sorensen recalled, “knew he had been hurt.” His only hope, he told Sorensen, was that American voters would not “realize that Puerto Rico is American soil.” If they did, he feared, “this election is lost.”

“The Ambassador,” Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers recalled in their memoir, “said that he was thinking of joining the Jewish religion. ‘The Jews are giving us more help than we’re getting from the Catholics.’ ”

On Nov. 3, two months and two days after its first article on the issue, the New York Times reported in a front-page article, “Shift to Kennedy by Jews,” that the attacks on the Catholic candidate by Protestant organizations, especially Norman Vincent Peale’s, had produced “a backfire of sympathy for Mr. Kennedy.” Republicans continued to circulate pamphlets “attacking former Ambassador Kennedy as a ‘notorious appeaser of Hitler,’ ” but they were “not having much effect” on Jewish voters. “The fear that the elder Kennedy’s views might have ‘rubbed off’ on Mr. Kennedy was ‘slowly being whittled away.’ ”

Sen. Kennedy had succeeded in convincing Jewish voters that he was the type of liberal they wanted in the White House. The shift toward Sen. Kennedy did not mean that they had rejected the charges that Joseph P. Kennedy had been a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite, but that they refused to hold the sins of the father against the son.

David Nasaw is the author of Andrew Carnegie and The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. He is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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