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The election of John F. Kennedy as the thirty-fifth President of the United States was a watershed for that country’s Catholics, but 50 years after his assassination, America is a very different place, with very different political battles fought over Catholicism
The presidential race of 1960 is the only one in American history in which a candidate’s religion became a decisive campaign issue. The country had never elected a Roman Catholic to the nation’s highest office, and for a great many Protestants the prospect represented a threat to religious liberty because Catholics, in their view, were subject to a command-and-obey religious system.
The assumption that the United States was essentially a Protestant country ran deep among both liberal “main line” Protestants (though influential voices from this camp such as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed) and the mostly Southern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who, unlike Niebuhr and other ecumenical Northerners, rarely socialised with Roman Catholics, much less voted for one.
Thus, while American Catholics celebrated John F. Kennedy’s election as a breakthrough for their religion, the 1960 campaign provoked a painful catharsis for those American Protestants who still clung to the assumption that the United States always was and should remain essentially Protestant in principle, polity and national profile.
It is difficult for Americans of subsequent generations to realise what Kennedy as a Catholic was up against. In their Democratic primary race against Hubert H. Humphrey, a jovial, bias-free senator from Minnesota, Kennedy strategists figured they had to win West Virginia, a mountainous border state settled by mostly Scots-Irish who typically voted Democrat, as proof that a Catholic could win in an overwhelmingly Protestant state.
Early in the West Virginia primary, polls showed Kennedy leading Humphrey by 17 percentage points. But as primary day drew closer, his lead dwindled to a statistical tie. What happened? Protestant preachers had alerted West Virginians that the handsome young senator from Massachusetts was a Catholic.
Lou Harris, Kennedy’s campaign pollster, found a way to neutralise the preachers’ bias. He created a campaign commercial that focused on Kennedy’s hand resting on a Bible, as if he were taking an oath, while the candidate’s voice pledged his allegiance to the separation of Church and State. The commercial was broadcast over every local television station in West Virginia, and partly because of it Kennedy won the state and the Democratic nomination.
Kennedy’s selection of Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, the majority leader of the US Senate, as his vice-presidential running mate was based on the hope that Johnson’s name would help the ticket win Texas, with its huge fistful of electoral college votes, and thus balance his certain defeat in the Deep South, a region known for being inhospitable to Catholicism.
Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, pledged not to play the religion card. That did not mean he or his campaign would not welcome or aid those who did. Indeed, the Fair Campaign Practices Committee collected 360 anti-Catholic publications and tracts mailed to an estimated 20 million voters. And that did not include countless Sunday sermons and religious radio programmes.
One little-known story involving evangelist Billy Graham, who had achieved his national political influence under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, illustrates just how determined a great many influential Protestant clergy were in the autumn of 1960 to prevent a Catholic from winning the White House. Early in the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, Graham wrote to his close friend, Lyndon Johnson, to assure him that, while he personally would vote for his even closer friend, Richard Nixon, he would not take sides in the campaign. In fact, Graham wrote, he would sit out the race at a house in Montreux, Switzerland. But in September, Graham summoned about two dozen Evangelical leaders to Montreux, where no reporters would notice. There they discussed the dangers of electing a Catholic President and how they could mobilise American Protestants to counter all the Catholics who would vote for one of their own.
Among Graham’s guests at Montreux were Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and a leading main-line churchman from New York City; L. Nelson Bell, editor of Christianity Today magazine and Graham’s father-in-law; Harold Ockenga, a leading Evangelical theologian; J. Elwin Wright, the co-founder of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE); and Glenn L. Archer, head of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a putatively secular anti-Catholic organisation.
After the meeting, both Graham and Peale wrote to Nixon, explaining their plan. Under the auspices of an NAE spin-off called – ironically – Citizens for Religious Freedom, they would hold a conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC to brief 150 other Protestant leaders on ways to stop the Kennedy threat to religious freedom.
Graham stayed behind in Montreux and Peale agreed to front the closed-door meeting, where several of the Montreux group spoke. Peale, for example, warned that “our American culture is at stake” and Bell declared: “The antagonism of the Roman Church to Communism is in part because of [their] similar methods.”
Two reporters slipped into the session, took notes on the rabidly anti-Catholic discussion and shared them with other reporters outside. When Peale addressed a press conference afterwards, he took such a drubbing from the reporters’ questions that afterwards he went into a deep depression and never regained his earlier public standing. Graham, meanwhile, never owned up to his central role in the plot against Kennedy. Ironically, the journalists’ exposé of the meeting initiated one of the major turning points of the 1960 campaign.
Kennedy was campaigning in the West when he read about the clandestine meeting in Washington. In his pocket was an invitation to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, hardly a friendly crowd, which he decided right then to accept. In that historic speech Kennedy declared in part: “I believe in an America where the 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.” That single speech, reported in headlines throughout the country, did much to cool anti-Catholic prejudice. It is unlikely Kennedy would have won in November without it.
As it turned out, Protestant Americans had nothing to fear from President Kennedy. The Pope did not issue him directives, as some Protestant leaders claimed he would. American bishops did not drop by the White House, and on the one issue that both conservative Protestants and Catholic bishops cared about – federal aid to parochial schools – Kennedy had already pledged not to support the bishops. In this way, Kennedy was not the first Catholic President but the first President who happened to be Catholic. He was a very secular man whose Catholic identity was essentially tribal – of a piece with his Irish heritage and Democratic Party affiliation.
In less than a decade after Kennedy’s assassination, changes in both the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party dramatically altered old relationships between the two. In the Kennedy and Johnson eras, Presidents paid political homage to the Cardinal Archbishop of New York who, especially in the person Francis Cardinal Spellman, was the Church’s major point of contact between the American hierarchy and the White House.
But the creation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops after the Second Vatican Council gradually shifted that contact to the elected president of the conference (not always a cardinal) and, on the day-to-day level, to the lobbyists and staff specialists at the bishops’ secretariat in Washington DC. Thus, while individual cardinals and residential bishops could and did speak out on public policy issues, especially abortion rights, it was the bishops’ conference that distributed guidelines on political issues for Catholics to consult before voting.
But the changes in the Democratic Party after the 1968 riot-torn party convention in Chicago were farther-reaching and more consequential for American Catholics. Until then, the Democratic Party represented Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of northern liberals, southern conservatives, intellectuals and Catholic and other blue-collar workers who together pushed through the social programmes of Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s massive Great Society initiatives.
Johnson’s historic civil rights legislation cost the Democrats its conservative white southern wing. But it was the party reforms of 1969-72 that, under the aegis of Senator George McGovern, so changed the party structure and the way that convention delegates are selected, that the Democrats ultimately lost the traditional allegiance of Catholics and other working-class voters.
Under the old system, party candidates as well as convention delegates were chosen by the big-city and statewide party bosses, a great many of whom, like Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, were Catholics. (Indeed, it was Daley who suddenly “found” previously uncounted Chicago votes for Kennedy that gave the senator the state of Illinois and cemented Kennedy’s sliver-thin win over Nixon in 1960.) The end of the boss system, in effect, severed the long-standing connection between the Democratic Party and the mostly urban Catholic Church. At the same time, the McGovern reforms established informal quotas for women, African-Americans and young people as delegates to the national convention. The immediate effect was the nomination of McGovern, a supporter of the anti-Vietnam War movement, as the party’s 1972 candidate for President.
McGovern (whom I voted for) went on to lose every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon. But the longer-term effect was to replace traditional Catholics and other white working-class Democrats with feminists, secularists, college graduates and New Left social activists who did not share the social and moral values of the party stalwarts they replaced.
The single most important issue that broke the old bond between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party was abortion. After Roe vs Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal and available virtually on demand, support for abortion rights became the litmus test for any Democrat who aspired to public office.
One by one, Catholic politicians who at first opposed abortion – including future presidential aspirants such as Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Delaware Senator (and current Vice President) Joe Biden, plus powerful governors such as Mario Cuomo of New York – abruptly changed positions.
Of these, only the combative Cuomo sought to square his Catholicism with his support for the world’s most permissive abortion law. In a much ballyhooed address at Notre Dame University in 1984, Cuomo argued that, while he as a Catholic was personally opposed to abortion, he could not as a public official try to impose his own religious beliefs on others. It was a lawyerly but transparently self-serving argument since no one had asked him to impose his beliefs and, indeed, Cuomo went on to become the Democratic Party’s most prominent Catholic voice in support of abortion rights.
By 1990, support for abortion rights became the one issue on which the leadership of the Democratic Party would tolerate no deviation among members seeking high state or national office. That meant pro-life Democrats could not expect financial or other campaign support from the Democratic National Committee – and no choice party assignments if they nevertheless won.
This unwritten party rule became brutally apparent at the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York City, which I attended. At that convention, the party passed a platform that included its strongest plank yet supporting abortion rights. As head of the Pennsylvania delegation, Robert P. Casey, the state’s progressive, Catholic and popular two-time governor, asked to present a minority report objecting to the plank. Not only was the governor rebuffed, he was also humiliated when the convention welcomed to the platform a pro-choice Republican activist who had campaigned against Casey in Pennsylvania. The message was clear: a Democrat who was liberal on economic issues, as Casey clearly was, was not welcome in the party if he or she were also conservative on social issues such as abortion.
In sum, the world’s oldest political party has changed markedly in character and composition from the party John F. Kennedy knew. So, for that matter, has the Republican Party, which is pro-life but at least tolerates Republican office holders who are pro-choice. These changes have repositioned American Catholics in relationship to politics and political parties.
First, Catholics now constitute the nation’s largest swing vote. Beginning in 1972, Republicans have won the presidency six times, the Democrats five. Each time, a majority of white Catholic voters supported the eventual winner. This does not mean Catholics vote as a bloc; on the contrary, it means that Catholic voters are too various and unpredictable to treat as a bloc. The election of 2004 was particularly notable because Democratic nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts, the first Catholic to run for President since John F. Kennedy, lost the Catholic vote to George W. Bush by five percentage points.
Secondly, it is apparent that Catholic politicians have nothing to fear by taking positions at odds with the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, as Mario Cuomo demonstrated 30 years ago, showing independence from the bishops almost always produces political advantage.
As for the bishops, their blend of cultural conservatism and economic liberalism – opposing “reproductive freedom” and supporting liberal immigration reform, for example – represents precisely the sort of blend of social conservatism and social-justice liberalism that neither major party is willing to support. For better and for worse, that too is the legacy of “the first Catholic President”.