Religion No Handicap for Kennedy Victory

After JFK won the presidency and took office, the 'Catholic issue' was rarely raised again.


The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is Friday. This is one of a series of blogs in which I analyze key aspects of the Kennedy presidency and assess what it means for us today.

John F. Kennedy was a ground-breaker in a fundamental way. He was a Roman Catholic in a nation that was overwhelmingly Protestant. At the time of the 1960 presidential campaign, when Kennedy sought the White House, there was widespread and deep suspicion that a Catholic would do the bidding of the pope in Rome and not make independent decisions.

Kennedy's victory cleared the air. No Catholic has won the presidency since, but many Catholics have risen very high in political life, including Vice President Joe Biden, and few believe that being a Catholic is a hindrance to winning the presidency, largely because of Kennedy's popularity.

He passed a big test during the race for the Democratic nomination in overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia. His main rival, former Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., started there with a huge lead but Kennedy, campaigning with charm and zest and making effective use of his wealthy father's money, won the West Virginia primary in May 1960.

[PHOTOS: JFK's Presidency and Legacy]

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy leaves the Saint Stephen Martyr catholic church after attending mass, on October 29, 1962 in Washington D.C.

In the general election campaign against Republican Richard Nixon, Protestant ministers told their congregations that they should not vote for Kennedy. He decided to address the religion issue directly and speak to a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston. On that occasion, he said the issue was "not what kind of church that I believe in" but what kind of country America should be. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he declared. Arguing that his patriotism was unimpeachable, he pointed out that he had fought for his country in the Pacific during World War II, and his brother Joe had died after volunteering for a dangerous mission as a flyer in Europe.

In the end, Kennedy won, and after he took office the "Catholic issue" was rarely raised again. Kennedy's religion really didn't play a role in his decision making, and few Americans appeared to care about his religion once he was president.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.