The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960

by Shaun A. Casey

Oxford University Press, 261 pages, $27.95

Strange as it may seem to those of a certain vintage, the dramatic presidential election that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon is as far in the national rearview mirror today as was, in 1960, the 1912 contest that featured William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Teddy Roosevelt. In The Making of a Catholic President , Shaun Casey, who teaches at Washington’s Wesley Theological Seminary and served as a senior advisor for religious affairs and evangelical coordinator for the 2008 Obama campaign, uses campaign records, interviews, and an extensive mining of the Protestant and Catholic press of the period to create a highly detailed portrait of what was called the “religion issue” in the 1960 ­campaign.

Those of tender ecumenical sensibilities should be forewarned: It’s not a pretty picture. In exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail, Casey describes both the skullduggeries by which various Protestant worthies and their organizations tried to block the election of a Catholic to the nation’s highest executive office and the counterstrategies employed by the Kennedy machine. The dramatis personae have largely been forgotten by most Americans today: Protestant poobahs such as Norman Vincent Peale and G. Bromley Oxnam, and Catholic prelates such as John J. Wright and Richard Cardinal Cushing. Those who imagine that contemporary American politics is oversaturated with religious passion and who resent Rick Warren’s serving as an interrogator of potential presidents will be usefully reminded by Casey’s book that things were no different”and were arguably worse”in the heyday of the old Protestant ­mainline.

Then there is the plot, which is driven by what can only be called the rank prejudices of Protestant leaders”men who insisted on the Protestant character of America with at least as much passion as, say, Francisco Franco insisted on the Catholic character of Spain, and who held fast to an image of public Catholicism that was not altogether dissimilar to the one conveyed in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs . One might have imagined that this hailstorm of anti-Catholicism, which was both overt and subtle, would have summoned forth a vigorous Catholic response. Yet the Catholic bishops of the United States were caught between the church“state theory then regnant in the Vatican (which favored religious establishments) and their own positive experience of the American institutional separation of church and state. So they played an exceedingly modest role in countering Protestant prejudice and propaganda, which was probably to the relief of the Kennedy campaign. Still, it seems likely (even if Casey doesn’t develop the point) that the bishops’ experience in 1960, with its frequent reminders that many of their fellow clergymen found the Catholic commitment to religious freedom suspect, hardened the American episcopate’s corporate determination to make church“state relations the American issue at Vatican II, which would open two years later.

Casey brings a good eye for irony to the telling of his tale”which is just as well, for there are a lot of ironies in this fire. Perhaps the sharpest of them was that some of the nation’s most prominent Protestant divines, having internalized a sense of their own religious and moral ownership of American democracy, were prepared to deny a man the American presidency because of his baptism”and to do so in defense of religious freedom.

There was ample irony on the Catholic side of the equation, too. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association was intended to put the religion issue to rest by creating as much distance as possible between the candidate and the institutional Church, and Kennedy’s aides (as students of these matters know and contemporary Jesuits proudly remind us) vetted it with the Jesuit church“state theorist John Courtney Murray, who would later play a large role in the religious- freedom debate at Vatican II. What is far less known, and certainly not trumpeted by Murray’s Jesuit brethren today, is that Murray, a devout Cold Warrior, had twice voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower, despised Adlai Stevenson, thought Kennedy a lightweight, and likely pulled the voting-machine lever for Nixon in November 1960.

The greatest irony of all, however, came on election day. As Shaun Casey suggests, Nixon’s tacit support for federal aid to parochial schools (which Kennedy, fearful of Protestant backlash, had opposed throughout his congressional career and in the presidential campaign) may have cost the Republican ticket the electoral votes of Texas and thus the 1960 election. (This assumes, of course, that Lyndon B. Johnson was a less-adept vote thief than Chicago’s Richard M. Daley. But given Landslide Lyndon’s own eighty-seven-vote victory in the 1948 Texas senatorial primary, that’s entirely possible.)

American politics and American ecumenism have both come a long way since the 1960 election. It is not at all clear, however, that these advances are the by-products of the 1960 election. American anti-Catholicism has had a lot of the theological (and, to be candid, emotional) ground cut out from under it by Vatican II’s ecumenical initiatives and its affirmation of religious freedom as a universal human right. The Protestant mainline collapsed into public irrelevance. New political coalitions that would have been unimaginable in 1960 have been forged in the trenches of the post“ Roe v. Wade culture wars; Kennedy’s narrow victory a half century ago has little to do with the pro-life work that the heirs of Norman Vincent Peale and the heirs of Cardinal Cushing now do together. In strictly electoral terms, 1972 and 1980 were, arguably, far more consequential in shaping the contours of today’s American politics than was 1960.

Indeed, the most consequential effect of the 1960 campaign touches electoral politics less than it does the continuing American debate over the roles of church and state, and the Catholic subset of that larger argument. The long-term influence of Kennedy’s approach has been the proliferation of such Catholic politicians as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden”men and women who, at a personal level, may be more pious than Jack Kennedy, but who take their cues on their public responsibilities from Richard P. McBrien’s and Mario Cuomo’s exegesis of Kennedy’s Houston speech.

The election of John F. Kennedy may indeed have put an end to the taboo against a Catholic president, but it did so by bringing to the Oval Office a man who had no serious formation in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and who seemed to think of politics as far more a matter of technocratic competence than of moral judgment.

That has been a loss for the country; the bifurcation of the minds of Catholic politicians, sanctioned in many of those minds by the example of the martyred JFK, continues to pose an immense pastoral problem for the Catholic Church and its leaders, a problem that is not close to resolution.

Shaun Casey seems to sense this irony: that the Catholic candidate in 1960”the man whose religion was a grave obstacle to his election in the minds of many of his fellow citizens”turned out to be the herald of the naked public square. Casey’s book would have been stronger if he had followed the intuition further. For the dynamics set in motion in Houston in 1960, refined by Cuomo and his theological advisers in 1984, have now given us a Catholic vice president and a Catholic speaker of the House of Representatives who are opposed to both Catholic and evangelical teaching”indeed, opposed to the self-evident demands of justice and the dictates of reason”on the premier civil-rights issue of our time: the defense of the dignity of life from conception until natural death.

Protestants such as Peale and Oxnam may have feared and resented pre“Vatican II ethnic Catholics; what that Protestant prejudice helped create was, in still another irony, far worse.

George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Articles by George Weigel

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