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Religious Issue Dogged Kennedy Throughout 1960 Campaign

February 13, 1988

Undated (AP) _ The returns were in, the candidate was on television and the anchorman wanted to talk about religion. Harsh words followed.

It was April 5, 1960, the night of the Wisconsin primary, and Walter Cronkite was asking John F. Kennedy about the impact of Roman Catholic voters. Kennedy answered coldly; his brother, the campaign manager, erupted afterwards.

″We had an agreement that no question be asked about Catholicism and the Catholic vote,″ Robert Kennedy shouted at Cronkite. ″I’m going to see that you never get another interview 3/8″

That incident, recalled by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his memoir of Robert Kennedy, reflected the tension generated by the religious issue in the 1960 campaign.

There were echoes of that moment earlier last week when Republican candidate Pat Robertson bristled at NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw’s description of him as a ″television evangelist.″

Robertson, who has compared himself to Kennedy in some advertisements, contends that religious bias has dogged his campaign. ″I shouldn’t be disqualified because I’m a devout evangelical Christian,″ says Robertson, a religious broadcaster who resigned as a Southern Baptist minister before entering the race.

If Kennedy’s campaign is a guide, Robertson cannot expect the issue to go away.

Kennedy’s religion was a major concern before he entered the race, a big issue in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries, and arguably the most troublesome issue in the campaign against Republican Richard Nixon.

To some Democratic leaders, even to Catholic Democratic leaders, Al Smith’s defeat by Herbert Hoover in 1928 showed that a Roman Catholic could not be elected president.

At a time when bosses could still control a convention, however, Kennedy had to prove his electability in the primaries.

In Wisconsin, where 30 percent of the electorate was Catholic, Kennedy tried to soft-pedal the religious issue. He made no appeals for tolerance and no direct appeals for Catholic support. Priests invited to one campaign event were warned by a Kennedy advance man: ″Fellows, please wear your sport shirts.″

In his book, ″Kennedy,″ Theodore Sorenson contended that the press played up the religious issue. The candidate was photographed meeting nuns but less attention was paid to other events, Sorenson complained, and people who attended Kennedy rallies were invariably asked about their religion.

Kennedy beat Sen. Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin with 56 percent of the vote, but lost in all four predominantly Protestant districts. West Virginia, where only 5 percent of the residents were Catholic, became a critical test of his appeal to Protestants.

Kennedy entered the non-binding West Virginia primary largely on the strength of a Harris Poll in late 1959 which showed him with 70 percent of the vote.

By April, Humphrey led 60-40. The difference was that voters had learned that Kennedy was a Catholic.

Schlesinger recalled that Robert Kennedy decided that the issue had to be met head on.

″Once that is done and in Jack’s speeches he gives answers to rational questions, then he must go on to show that there is something more important to those people than anything to do with religion,″ Schlesinger quoted Robert Kennedy as saying. ″...It is simply food, family and flag in southern West Virginia.″

And faith. The religion issue ″cropped up in every poll and press interview,″ wrote Sorenson, a Unitarian who was Kennedy’s speech writer. ″It gave rise to anti-Kennedy sermons in all kinds of pulpits. Even the Humphrey campaign song was sung to the tune of ‘Give Me That Old-Time Religion’.″

The Episcopal bishop of West Virginia said he could not accept a Catholic president. A Baptist minister circulated a bogus oath of the Knights of Columbus which spoke of Catholics warring against Protestants, Sorenson said.

Kennedy decided to highlight the issue in an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington.

The only legitimate question about his religion, the candidate said, was whether he would defer in any way to ecclesiastical pressures or obligations that might conflict with the national interest.

″My answer was - and is - no,″ he said.

″I am not 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.″

Kennedy’s victory in West Virginia, with 61 percent of the vote, was crucial to his nomination.

In the campaign against Nixon, Kennedy had hoped to put off the religious issue until October. It wouldn’t wait.

The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, a friend of Nixon, was among the organizers of the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom early in September. The Kennedy camp regarded the group as less than neutral; Sorenson said one member equated Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev, calling each ″a captive of a system.″

Kennedy accepted an invitation to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, a speech which he recognized as a crucial, perhaps decisive, moment.

As he worked on the speech, Sorenson tried to pin down how many Roman Catholics died at the Alamo. He couldn’t, but found some Irish and Hispanic names among the dead and crafted this line: ″For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes and McCafferty and Bailey and Bedillo and Carey, but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.″

Kennedy said he believed ″in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,″ where no minister would support or oppose any candidate, where no church or school would receive public aid, and where religion would not be an election issue.

″If the time should ever come - and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible - when my office would require me to either violate my conscience, or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office,″ Kennedy said.

The speech was a great success. ″As they say in my part of Texas, he ate ’em blood raw,″ said Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.

It did not lay the issue to rest, though Nixon made no overtly religious appeals.

″The Republicans were, in fact, handling the religious issue very shrewdly,″ Sorenson wrote. ″To be sure, they continually mentioned the issue by deploring it. Nixon repeatedly declared that both candidates should refrain from discussing the subject.″

Others did. Sorenson quoted Dr. Ramsey Pollard, then the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, as saying: ″No matter what Kennedy might say, he cannot separate himself from his church if he is a true Catholic. ... All we ask is that Roman Catholicism lift its bloody hand from the throats of those that want to worship in the church of their choice.″

Sorenson concluded that Kennedy’s religion proved to be a liability. Though he won a solid majority of the Catholic vote, he lost Protestant voters, particularly in the South. Kennedy did only a little better in Boston and other heavily Catholic areas than Harry Truman had done in 1948, Sorenson said.

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