October 6, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

When John F. Kennedy won the presidential election of 1960

John F. FinkJohn Fitzgerald Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president of the United States, won the election in 1960, defeating Richard M. Nixon. Like Alfred E. Smith 28 years earlier, Kennedy faced some heavy anti-Catholic opposition, although not quite as vicious.

The Rev. Billy Graham became friendly to the Catholic Church in later years, but he wasn’t yet in 1960. In the summer of 1960, he invited about 25 evangelical leaders, mainly Southern Baptist and Lutheran, to his vacation home in Montreux, Switzerland, to discuss a campaign to encourage Protestants to vote against Kennedy.

They agreed that Graham would remain in Switzerland, but that the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale would hold a conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to which 150 other Protestant leaders were invited. It was supposed to be a secret meeting, but two reporters invaded the meeting and reported on the anti-Catholic discussion that took place.

When Kennedy learned about the meeting, he decided to face the anti-Catholicism head on. He accepted an invitation he had already received from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to explain how a Catholic could govern as president without taking orders from the pope.

On Sept. 12, Kennedy told that association, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.”

He promised not to allow Catholic officials to dictate public policy to him, and he also raised the question of whether a quarter of the American population should be relegated to second-class citizenship just because they were Catholics.

Kennedy’s speech to the Houston ministers probably won him the election. What he said is true, but it also opened the way for future Catholic politicians to try to explain how they can reconcile their pro-abortion votes with their Catholicism.

It was a close election, Kennedy winning 49.72 percent of the vote and Nixon 49.55 percent. Kennedy won only 22 states, but won the electoral votes by 303 to 219. Catholics who voted for Republican Dwight E. Eisenhower in 1956 voted for Democrat Kennedy in 1960, and many Catholics who didn’t vote at all in 1956 voted for Kennedy in 1960. Two studies analyzed the vote. One found that Kennedy received 78 percent of the Catholic vote, and the other said it was 82 percent.

There were other reasons for Kennedy’s victory besides his Catholicism, of course. He won the African-American vote after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Georgia, and Kennedy phoned King’s family to offer his support.

Kennedy also probably would not have won if he hadn’t had Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. Johnson’s presence allowed the ticket to win Texas, but only by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin, or 46,000 votes. Johnson also helped win most of the southern states.

Then, of course, there was Illinois, which Kennedy won by fewer than 9,000 votes. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley held back Chicago’s vote until the late morning hours. †

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