Profiles in Bigotry

As Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy geared up for the post-convention campaign in August 1960, twenty-five clerics quietly assembled in the Alps to draw up a plan of action for the presidential race. Anti-Catholic zealots had long planted images of such clerical cabals in the public mind, suggesting Catholic politicians’ susceptibility to religious directives transmitted from abroad. Yet this particular cabal was hosted by none other than “America’s pastor,” Rev. Billy Graham, and was attended by some of the most influential U.S. Protestant leaders. Fears of America’s “papalization” and a desire to solidify the Protestant vote for Nixon united these men, who took the extra precaution of gathering at a remote Swiss resort to limit the chance of their being accused of trafficking in the ugly business of religious bigotry.

Though hidden behind the campaign’s public events, this meeting, along with scores of similar gatherings of anti-Catholic religious leaders within the United States, became crucial to the making of the nation’s first Catholic president. In fact, Shaun Casey argues, without the anti-Catholicism that these meetings both exemplified and provoked, Americans might never have elected a Catholic to the highest office in the land. In the end, overt bigotry, joined with the Nixon campaign’s two-pronged approach of eschewing religious bias while secretly collaborating with some of its most unsavory promoters, actually fueled Kennedy’s prospects. As a result, the winner would take the oath of office not on the King James Bible, but on a Douay-Rheims version that bore the papal seal.

In the intervening decades, the Kennedy inauguration has come to symbolize American Catholics’ coming of age, their acceptance into the national mainstream. Cut short by his tragic assassination, Kennedy’s thousand days in office quickly became a golden age before an era of social and political turbulence that began in earnest under Lyndon Johnson. To his credit, Casey, who teaches ethics at Wesleyan Theological Seminary and served as a religious-affairs adviser to the Obama campaign, repeats little of this customary narrative and offers instead a freshly researched, revealing, blow-by-blow account of the “religious issue” in the storied contest of 1960.

By 1956, the Kennedy camp had already outpaced its opponents, parsing electoral data for ways to transform the potential candidate’s greatest liability into an asset. To this end, Kennedy agents circulated a memo demonstrating that half of Catholic voters supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Since Catholics represented a quarter of the electorate, the memo argued, an attractive Catholic candidate could potentially recall the “Catholic vote” to its political home and ensure Democratic victory. In other words, the Kennedy campaign argued that the New Deal coalition of Catholics, union members, women, blacks, and Jews—a combination of voting blocs that had secured the Democrats’ national power since the 1930s—was fraying as Catholics deserted their parents’ party. These circumstances demanded a Democratic appeal to Catholics, an appeal that in some ways prefigured the “Catholic strategy” Nixon himself would adopt to win reelection in 1972.

The Kennedy campaign went on to make religion a net positive in 1960. Despite Protestant political operatives’ persistent efforts to force Kennedy into a defensive crouch, the candidate cheerfully engaged questions about his beliefs. This strategy paid off particularly well in the crucial, almost entirely Protestant state of West Virginia, where Kennedy faced Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey in a tight, make-or-break primary challenge. As the Kennedy campaign organized an army of Protestant pastors to decry the specter of anti-Catholicism, the candidate himself proclaimed that the notion of voting for or against any candidate on religious grounds was un-American. The result was a twenty-point victory for Kennedy that virtually ensured his party’s nomination a few months later.

In September, when a group of pro-Nixon pastors in Houston invited Kennedy to respond to their concerns about his religious commitments, he turned the Pharisees’ trap against them. Coached by Commonweal editor John Cogley, Boston native Bishop (and later Cardinal) John Wright, and the Jesuit church-state specialist John Courtney Murray, Kennedy gently reminded his inquisitors that no one had called him out for “divided loyalty” during his heroic stint as a World War II naval officer or his fourteen years in Congress. He went on to condemn all religious litmus tests for public office, proclaim his opposition to any sectarian manipulation of public policy, and promise to resign the presidency in the unlikely event of a conflict between his religiously informed conscience and the national interest. As anti-Catholic arguments rose to a fever pitch in the final run-up to November, the Kennedy campaign aired the well-received Houston speech nearly two hundred times in forty states, casting religious opposition to Kennedy as irrationally prejudiced. In the election’s waning days, even Nixon was forced to counsel his supporters against casting their votes on religious grounds.

Officially, Nixon positioned himself above the fray, refusing to engage the subject of religion as a sign of his tolerance. Yet behind the scenes, former Missouri congressman Orland Armstrong served as Nixon’s anti-Catholic envoy. To exploit the full potential of anti-Catholicism, Armstrong fielded intelligence from figures like Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale, coordinated the efforts of powerful organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, and enlisted local anti-Kennedy clergy associations across the South to fan the flames of religious division at the grassroots. By late October, when the traditional celebration of “Reformation Sunday” became an occasion for Nixon supporters to unleash a last-minute torrent of anti-Catholic propaganda, Armstrong demonstrated his power to orchestrate an all-out religious assault in the realm of politics—even if, as Casey suggests, his efforts enabled Kennedy to cast critics as intolerant and un-American.

In his often undisciplined narrative, Casey unfortunately never fully connects the dots. But his account suggests that a popular surge of religious engagement in the 1950s converged with the Nixon campaign to foster the early stirrings of a nationally organized “Religious Right.” Though its rise is normally associated with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan’s religious appeals in 1980, Orland Armstrong was forebear to Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Terry Dolan, and Ed Fuelner, the masterminds of Republican religious activism by the late 1970s. The most striking difference between Armstrong and these figures is that each of the latter is Catholic. Ironically, a movement rooted in anti-Catholic furor later deputized erstwhile enemies as its key agents. That irony hints at a potentially fascinating back-story from 1960 to 1980, which, as with so much recent political history, surely turns on the fateful Roe v. Wade decision. Although that story is beyond the scope of Casey’s book, it is clear that Catholics’ influence in contemporary politics has important roots in the strategy that put a Catholic in the White House.

Published in the 2009-08-14 issue: 

James P. McCartin teaches at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics (Harvard University Press).

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