W Publishing Group
Thirty-fifth President – 1961-1963
State Born: Massachusetts
Religion: Roman Catholic
I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic
Party's candidate for President who happens to be a Catholic.
- John F. Kennedy, 1960
He had all the credentials of a superb presidential candidate. He came from a solid, New England family. He was wealthy, handsome, articulate, educated, brilliant, energetic, and clever. Only one thing stood in his way. He was a Roman Catholic.
During the early days of the campaign of 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith caused even some of the staunchest Democrats to fear that, if elected, his policies (and those of the nation) would be dictated by the Vatican. Others feared that his Catholic heritage would hurt any chance of gaining election as it did for candidate Alfred E. Smith in 1928.
Pockets of fundamentalism coupled with anti-Catholic prejudice still existed in the nation, particularly in the so-called "Bible belt" states: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. Many Protestants feared that were Kennedy elected as President, our national policies would be shaped not in Washington, but in Rome. They were concerned that as President, Kennedy would be compelled to follow the dictates of the Pope.
In typical style, the young Massachusetts Democrat met the issue head-on, and left no doubt as to where he stood on the subject of church and state, particularly as it related to the presidency. Just eight months before the election in 1960, Kennedy spelled out his philosophy in a Look magazine article:
Whatever one's religion in his private life may be for the office-holder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all of its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of Church and State.
One month later he told a group of newspaper editors:
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.
Perhaps he was most convincing when he gave a dramatic speech in September before a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. Here he displayed the famous Kennedy ability to turn adversity into an advantage when he told them:
Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has been elected President, it is apparently necessary for me to state once again . . . not what kind of Church I believe in for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where separation of Church and State is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.
Aside from his remarkable ability to win over even his strongest critics, Kennedy had three other advantages over former Catholic candidate Al Smith.
First, the spirit of peaceful co-existence perpetuated by former President Eisenhower did much to ease tensions between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Second, the Catholic Church made a conscientious effort to downplay its familiar claim as being the “only true Church.”
Finally, the entrance onto the world scene of Pope John XXIII was of great comfort to both Catholics and non-Catholics. This fatherly figure who radiated love and concern for all God's children quickly dispelled any notion that Rome was a threat to the security of these United States.
John XXIII was a new breed of Pope; he attempted to bring Christian denominations together through dialogue and understanding of each other. He hoped “to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air.”
John F. Kennedy embodied that same spirit and considered himself as part of the modern emphasis of Catholicism endorsed by John XXIII.
John Kennedy was also part of a new emphasis on politics. In lieu of wrapping himself in the image of a conservative CEO of a major corporation, the flamboyant, suntanned Kennedy showed a spark of excitement that would be sure to invite a response—be it positive or negative.
He won the election in 1960, but it was far from easy. He squeaked past the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, by less than 113,000 votes. Some analysts felt that Kennedy's religion actually helped him as much as it hurt him in the election. Nevertheless, it was the President's conduct that did the most to keep the matter stilled during his two years, 306 days in office.
President Kennedy was a faithful attendee of Mass but was reluctant to invite Roman Catholic priests to the Executive Mansion for fear of misinterpretation by the press and other observers. Also, during his administration, he showed no religious favoritism in his selection of staff members; he recommended no ambassador to the Vatican (something which even Harry Truman, a Baptist, had seriously considered years earlier); he did not hinder legislation regarding birth control; and, on occasion, he attended special services at Protestant churches.
As was the case with most Chief Executives, President Kennedy remained cautious about confiding in others, even to clergymen. He often worried that a visit to the confession booth (a standard procedure for faithful Catholics) would prove disastrous were some priest to recognize his voice and reveal the contents of his confession. In order to avoid recognition as much as possible, the President attended confession along with a group of Roman Catholic Secret Service agents, and waited his turn in line with other parishioners.
In the popular compendium, The People's Almanac, Michael Medued relates that once, when the President entered the booth, his familiar voice was recognized by the priest.
"Good evening, Mr. President," said the priest.
"Good evening, Father," answered Kennedy, who quickly arose and walked out.
In spite of this, President Kennedy counted among his friends, two priests in whom he placed his trust. One was Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. An old friend of the Kennedy clan, he officiated at Kennedy's marriage to socially prominent Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953 and baptized their children.
The other confidant was his "pastor in Washington"—Father Albert Pereira of St. Stephen's Church in Middleburg, Virginia, located near a country home purchased by the President and Mrs. Kennedy in 1961. The President would often arrive a few minutes before Mass in order to chat privately with Father Pereira, and according to the priest, displayed a remarkable awareness of the finer points of Catholic dogma.
Former U.S. Senate Chaplain Edward Elson agreed with Father Pereira. “President Kennedy found it easy to talk about his religious convictions,” he said. “At the same time, he was highly aware of the necessity to keep religion and matters of State separate.”
President Kennedy did allow his Christian to slip through when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he referred specifically to the Soviet Union as “America’s atheistic foe.” He also characterized the cold war between the United States and the USSR as a conflict between two ideologies—“freedom under God verses ruthless, godless tyranny.”
John Kennedy had an uncanny ability to sway crowds. His youth, charm, and polish created a vibrant charisma not only in America, but in other lands as well.
In 1961, during a visit to France at a time when fashion-minded designers copied his wife's stylish clothes and hairdos, the President introduced himself as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."
Later that year, he stood alongside the Berlin Wall which separated family and friends of West Germany and East Germany. He captured the hearts of the people, drawing cheers from an assembled throng, as he proclaimed his empathy by shouting, "Ich bin ein Berliner!"
Perhaps his personal ethos was never more evident than at the time he returned to the soil of his ancestors in the spring of 1963 and spoke to the people of Ireland about his heritage:
When my great-grandfather left here, he carried with him two things—a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren valued that inheritance.
During President Kennedy’s term in office, he and Congress had to wrestle with a controversial decision regarding prayer in public schools.
Prior to June 17, 1963, most school days began with a teacher reading 10 verses from the Bible without offering comment. The students, then, prayed aloud the Lord’s Prayer.
If parents objected to this practice, all they had to do was to write a note explaining their feelings. Their children would thereby be excused from participation in this ritual.
The Supreme Court ruled on June 17 that this mandatory practice was to cease. The Court cited the First Amendment of the Constitution as the basis for this decision.
Because of his Roman Catholic faith, President Kennedy was falsely accused by some of his political foes for encouraging this decision.
On Friday, November 22 of that same year, at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, Texas, a sniper's bullet killed the President of the United States. Television broadcasts over the next four days shocked America and the world with horrific images: A rush to Parkland Hospital by an open-air limousine . . . a stunned widow in a blood-stained, pink dress . . . a quick flight of Air Force One back to Washington . . . a casket lying in state . . . a shooting of the alleged assassin . . . a funeral procession . . . a young son saluting his father . . . a burial . . . and “Taps.”
A weeping America said “Good-bye” to its 35th Chief Executive.
Gone was the one of the nation’s most charismatic leaders.
Gone was the legacy dubbed “Camelot.”
Gone was the question as to whether or not a Catholic could be President of the United States.
• 1961 – The President establishes the Peace Corps.
• 1961 – The ill-fated “Bay of Pigs” invasion takes place.
• 1962 – President imposes a quarantine on Cuba during the “Missile Crisis.”
• 1963 – President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Used by permission. Adapted from God and the Oval Office by John McCollister. (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright 2005).