Anti-Catholic prejudice was still very much in the mainstream of American life when JFK decided to seek the presidency in 1960.
Only one Catholic, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, had ever been the presidential nominee of one of the major parties. Smith’s 1928 campaign was dogged by claims that he would build a tunnel connecting the White House and the Vatican and would amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the nation’s established religion. He was overwhelmingly defeated—even losing much of the then Democratic Solid South.
JFK established an informal network of advisers on the religious issue—including speechwriter Ted Sorensen, Dean Francis Bowes Sayre Jr. of the National Cathedral and several journalists. It was clear from the outset that Kennedy had to enter the state primaries to prove to skeptical party leaders that he was a viable national candidate. In the Wisconsin primary, he defeated Senator Hubert Humphrey with 56% of the vote but failed to win a majority of the Protestant vote—an ominous sign.
West Virginia Primary
As a result, Kennedy decided to enter the West Virginia primary—a state in which Catholics constituted less than 4% of the electorate. When the polls in West Virginia showed JFK behind by 20 points, he decided to address the issue head on in a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors:
Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can be elected to the Israeli parliament—but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States? Are we going to admit to the world--worse still, are we going to admit to ourselves—that one-third of the American people is forever barred from the White House?
In the end, after a vigorous campaign which included extensive use of his family’s personal wealth, Kennedy won by 93,000 to 61,000 and declared, "I think we have buried the religion issue once and for all." He was wrong.
Greater Houston Ministerial Association
In September, a group of 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and declared that Kennedy could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings. Days later Senator Kennedy received an invitation to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy’s candid and eloquent performance in Houston won nearly universal praise from the press and film of his talk was used extensively by the JFK campaign. In addition, more than 500,000 copies of his remarks were distributed to clergy, especially Protestant clergy, around the nation. The religious issue never surfaced again in a way which demanded the candidate’s full attention, but continued to bubble just beneath the surface until Election Day. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, accused the Kennedy campaign of using the Houston film in predominantly Catholic urban areas in order to stimulate voter turnout.
The Finals Days of the Campaign
Late in October, three American-born bishops in Puerto Rico issued a statement forbidding Catholics from voting for candidates who disagreed with the Church on abortion and birth control. Kennedy initially decided to respond to their declaration, but finally concluded that it was unwise to focus too much attention on this potentially damaging incident. Several studies have concluded that this controversy, coming at the worst possible time, was a significant factor in the sudden halt in Kennedy’s momentum and the surge toward Nixon in the final days of the campaign.
Kennedy won the presidency in one of the closest elections in American history—by a margin of 118,000 votes out of 69 million. There is solid evidence that religion helped Kennedy in several urban and industrial states but was, at the same time, a significant factor in his loss of Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee—and in his very close win in Texas. President Kennedy was the only Catholic to have held the highest office in the land until Joseph Biden was inaugurated in 2021.