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Faithful Voting

A famous campaign’s sectarian side.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By MARK TOOLEY
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The Making of a Catholic President

Faithful Voting

Photo Credit: Getty

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.

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