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How John F. Kennedy Overcame Anti-Catholic Bias to Win the Presidency

November 20, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” JFK declared in 1960. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”

On September 12, 1960, less than two months before Americans would choose the next president of the United States, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy was in Texas giving a speech to a Houston gathering of Southern Baptist clergy.

This wasn’t a normal campaign stop. Kennedy was Catholic and, at the time, only the second Catholic presidential candidate in U.S. history after Al Smith’s unsuccessful run in 1928. And for a Catholic candidate from New England, a conference of Southern Baptist ministers was considered the “lion’s den,” ground zero for anti-Catholic political rhetoric and even outright bigotry.

JFK: Catholic for President (TV-PG; 2:35)

“[C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy said on live TV in his now famous address. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

In the late 1950s, Catholic politicians were viewed with open suspicion by many mainline Protestants and Evangelicals. Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and author of The Making of a Catholic President, says that Catholic candidates were accused of having “dual loyalties” to both the Vatican and the United States.

“The argument was, when push came to shove, a president who was Roman Catholic would ultimately be more loyal to the Vatican because the fate of his eternal soul was at stake,” says Casey. “If Kennedy was elected president, he’d criminalize birth control, he’d cut off foreign aid that helped countries invest in birth control, and he’d funnel tax money to Catholic parochial schools.”

Al Smith Faced More Anti-Catholic Sentiment in 1920s

President Herbert Hoover (left) won the election over Al Smith (right) in 1928.

When Al Smith ran for president in the 1920s, anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread. One political cartoon from the era shows Smith’s “cabinet” as a conference room full of bishops with the Pope sitting at the head of the table. Smith is seen serving the assembled clergy with a jug of “XXX” liquor. One prominent Baptist minister from Oklahoma told his parishioners, “If you vote for Al Smith …read more


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