The Making of a Catholic President

Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960

by Shaun Casey

Oxford, 272 pp., $27.95

Joseph Biden’s election to the vice presidency was only the second time that a Roman Catholic has ascended to national elected office. Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president obviously was more momentous—but why so little attention to Biden’s Catholicism? John Kerry was only the third Roman Catholic to receive a major presidential nomination, but most Catholic voters opposed him in 2004, such was the minimal importance of Catholic vs. Protestant in 21st-century American politics.

In 1960, Catholic vs. Protestant still mattered, and Shaun Casey’s study competently tells how John Kennedy, just barely, became the nation’s first Roman Catholic chief executive. Casey alleges, with documentation, that the Nixon campaign secretly conspired with some Protestant church groups and prominent clergy (including Billy Graham) to mobilize against Kennedy. Meanwhile, the Kennedys sought ties to Protestant leaders, if only to neutralize their opposition.

Casey teaches Christian Ethics at the United Methodist Wesley Seminary in Washington and led religious outreach for the Obama campaign. Presumably he sees parallels between Kennedy as first Catholic president and Obama as first black president, although he avoids such comparisons here. More dubiously, he does try to claim that the covert Protestant opposition to Kennedy in 1960 was a foreshadowing of the modern Religious Right.

Suspicions about Roman Catholics in high office existed among both liberal and conservative Protestants in 1960. Their concerns were mostly cultural and historical and not rooted in specific issues. Potential diplomatic recognition of the Vatican and government funding of parochial schools were much ballyhooed, though not consequential. In contrast, the modern Religious Right arose in the late 1970s mostly among conservative evangelicals but also including some conservative Catholics, in response to specific culture-war issues such as abortion, school prayer, and tax exemption for religious schools.

In 1960, liberal Protestant critics of Kennedy included Methodist bishops, the National Council of Churches, Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, and Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (POAU), today called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. (Ultimately turning hard left, POAU’s direct-mail campaigns in later years would allege encroaching theocracy with every government-hosted Christmas tree or high school baccalaureate, portraying conservative Protestants and Catholics equally as the enemy.)

Conservative Protestant opponents (or skeptics) of Kennedy included the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, the Churches of Christ, Christianity Today, and Billy Graham. Defying any conservative/liberal label, there was Norman Vincent Peale, too, Nixon’s sometime pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and the target of Adlai Stevenson’s famous quip, “I find [Saint] Paul appealing, and Peale appalling.”

Peale moderated a conclave of Protestant clergy in Washington in September 1960 to strategize against Kennedy. Media were officially barred, but a Newsday reporter, joined by the Washington Post, sneaked into an adjoining sound box and overheard the unvarnished proceedings. Publication of the clergy’s agenda embarrassed Peale and another organizer, the Presbyterian medical missionary L. Nelson Bell, Graham’s father-in-law, and Peale and others had to publicly disavow any explicit anti-Kennedy campaign plans. Indeed, Peale was especially embarrassed and largely avoided political involvement for his remaining 33 years.

As Casey tells it, that convocation, called the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, was chiefly instigated by the National Association of Evangelicals. But it cooperated closely with the Nixon campaign and was helped by Billy Graham, who seems to have stayed in Europe for much of the campaign to avoid public involvement. The public statement that eventually emerged, which Peale dutifully read at a press conference, had been composed by the Republican National Committee, to which the Kennedy campaign had been alerted by a secret informant within POAU. Newsday and Washington Post reports about the proceedings discredited Peale, who Casey reports went into a depression, even offering to resign his pulpit, partly because Graham declined to acknowledge his own behind-the-scenes role, leaving Peale to take the press hits. Reinhold Niebuhr accused Peale of “blind prejudice,” Catholic ethicist John Courtney Murray bemoaned anti-Catholic bigotry, and Richard Nixon himself denounced the meeting on Meet the Press.

Casey writes that Billy Graham’s “fingerprints” were all over the Protestant anti-Kennedy covert effort throughout the campaign, even sharing his mailing list with the Nixon campaign. In his memoirs, however, Graham downplays his role, referring instead to pro-Nixon “allusions” he made before the May 1960 Southern Baptist Convention but otherwise crediting “divine intervention” for keeping him from directly endorsing Nixon. Nevertheless the clergy conference, fiasco though it may have been, did succeed in unnerving the Democrats and persuaded Kennedy to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. His famous speech there prompted Sam Rayburn to declare, “He ate ’em blood raw.”

The vignettes about Graham and Peale are among this book’s most vivid. Also interesting is an account of Kennedy’s meeting with the Council of Methodist Bishops in a Senate office building in 1959. Methodist bishops are politically inconsequential today, but a half-century ago they represented America’s largest Protestant denomination, and the meeting was covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time, which likened Kennedy to Daniel entering the lion’s den. Once again, reporters were barred, so photographs showed a courageous Kennedy from behind, entering the arena, with dark-suited, somber Methodist prelates looking on inquisitorially beyond the door. As it happens, the meeting went well—although the bishops received Hubert Humphrey, a fellow Methodist, with more enthusiasm.

The president of the Methodist bishops at the time was Bromley Oxnam, formerly of Boston, whom Kennedy “feared,” according to Casey, and Joseph Kennedy regarded with an “unholy horror,” seeing Oxnam as anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and likely anti-Democratic. In fact, Oxnam was a liberal Democrat who had supported Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Adlai Stevenson. Oxnam had famously and successfully rebutted charges of being a fellow traveler in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and during a 1958 meeting with Kennedy had been thoroughly charmed, and credited JFK with possessing more “integrity” than Richard Nixon. Kennedy told Oxnam he had no plans for diplomatic ties to the Vatican, and assured him that, while personally opposed to birth control, he would not oppose federal funding for birth control.

Oxnam never openly endorsed Kennedy, and it’s not known how (or whether) he voted. But during the 1960 primaries, Oxnam joined other senior clerics in declaring that no candidate should be discounted because of his “chosen faith.” The Kennedy charm offensive had worked.

On a more entertaining note, some Protestant leaders apparently got wind of Kennedy’s relentless philandering. Billy Graham wrote to warn him that he had “overheard” malicious gossip, but two Kennedy confidants reassuringly “clarified” the story. The president of Union Seminary in New York more assertively asked Adlai Stevenson if a promiscuous John F. Kennedy was fit for the presidency, sourcing the “rumors” back to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith by way of Reinhold Niebuhr. Stevenson, Galbraith, and Schlesinger all seem to have persuaded the Union president that Kennedy’s sexual escapades were history.

Of course, had opponents aggressively exposed Kennedy’s private life, they could have disenchanted both Protestant and Catholic supporters. But more than a few liberal Protestants may have simply agreed with Niebuhr: “I never thought I’d be voting for a compulsive adulterer, but he certainly has a better grasp of the situation than Nixon.”

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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