The Catholic Thing
America's First Catholic President Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The presidential campaign of 1960 was one of the most exciting in American history. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon – two  attractive, talented, ambitious men, both in their forties and both World War II Navy veterans – crisscrossed the nation in search of votes. It was the first presidential campaign to utilize television extensively. Millions of Americans were able to see and hear the candidates, something that had never occurred before in our national history. The sound bite was invented. When it came to this new visual medium, Jack Kennedy and his organization outpaced, outspent, and outclassed the Nixon operation.

On November 8, 1960, election day, a record-breaking 64.5 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and Kennedy was elected with 34.2-million votes (49.7 percent) to Nixon’s 34.1-million (49.6 percent). The electoral college broke 303 for JFK and 219 for Nixon.

Inner-city Catholic votes unquestionably provided Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory. As Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President 1960, wrote: “There is no doubt that millions of Americans, Protestants and Catholics, voted in 1960 primordially out of instinct [and kinship].” Out of pride, 67 percent of Catholics, who had supported the Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, swung back to the Democrat Kennedy and boosted his total share of the Catholic vote to over 70 percent. Kennedy received about 70 percent of the Italian vote, 66 percent of the Polish, 68 percent of the Irish, and 50 percent of the German Catholic vote.

The results also proved that a significant number of Protestants had voted against Kennedy because of his religion. In fact, JFK was the first man elected president who did not receive a majority of the Protestant vote. IBM political analysts peg Kennedy’s Protestant support at 46 percent while Gallup puts it at 38 percent. It is estimated that 4.5 million Protestant Democrats (mostly in the South) crossed party lines and voted for Nixon. This was evident in the fact that Nixon’s Southern vote totals were actually higher than Ike’s had been in 1956. Nixon managed to carry Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and he came within 1 percent of carrying Texas, South Carolina, and Missouri. Kennedy’s Southern numbers lagged behind Adlai Stevenson’s, even as JFK ran 10 percent ahead of Stevenson in the Northeast.

Nixon’s huge majorities in Iowa, Nebraska, and in North and South Dakota – once William Jennings Bryan country – were largely the result of Protestant distaste for Kennedy. Results there were similar to those in Milton County, Kentucky, where religious solidarity was most evident: in four Protestant precincts, Nixon received 65 percent of the vote, and in five Catholic precincts, Kennedy garnered 88 percent. The University of Michigan Survey concluded that “American Protestants were remarkably preoccupied by the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic.” But then, to be fair, so were Catholics.

              The 1960 presidential debate: The Catholic, left, the Protestant, right, with moderator Howard K. Smith

Jack Kennedy was saved by the urban vote in the electoral-rich states of the Northeast and Midwest. In these regions, he carried 78 percent of the Catholic vote, 70 percent of the African-American vote, and 80 percent of the Jewish vote. After reviewing the inner-city vote tallies, pollster Elmo Roper concluded: “If there was a victim of religious prejudice it was Nixon more than Kennedy. All but one of the states most heavily populated by Catholics went for Kennedy.”

In New York state, Kennedy’s total was 52.6 percent. If it were not for the huge Catholic turnout in New York City, where JFK received 62.8 percent, and in Buffalo (64.9 percent), he would have lost the Empire State’s forty-five electoral votes, which comprised 15 percent of his total. The situation was the same in other key Kennedy states:

Kennedy Results 
27 Electoral Votes
16 Electoral Votes
New Jersey
32 Electoral Votes
20 Electoral Votes
St. Louis
13 Electoral Votes

Political analyst Michael Barone, who knows the electoral landscape perhaps better than anyone now alive, concludes that “these figures provide the firmest possible evidence for the irrefutable argument that the 1960 election split the nation along religious, which is to say cultural lines, not along lines of economic class.” Put another way: Kennedy’s election was not a victory for liberalism, it was a victory for Catholicism.

We have recently had a discussion among Catholics about what Kennedy’s Houston speech to a group of Protestant pastors – also fifty years in the past – meant to the longer-term position of the Church in America. Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has brilliantly argued that Kennedy gave away the store and badly misrepresented the Catholic view of the right relationship of religion and politics. That is quite true. But for Catholics, there’s also something worth noting in the fact that, half a century ago, for the first time, it became possible in America for a Catholic to become president. That achievement has not been repeated. (Who wants the kind of “Catholic” that John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden represent?) Still, we should remember that the door is now open in ways that, in the not-so-distant past, would simply not have been possible in an America marred by anti-Catholic bigotry.

George J. Marlin is an editor of
The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of. The American Catholic Voter.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Louise, October 20, 2010
In 1960, I was 37 years old and a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant. (Things change.) It was said at the time that Mayor Daley called Kennedy late on election day and asked, "How many votes do you need.?" True? Who knows. The Chicago vote above lends credence, though, doesn't it

"it became possible in America for a Catholic to become president". I think it more correct to say that it is possible for a CERTAIN KIND of Catholic to become president. The jury is still out on whether a faithful Catholic could be elected. And, BTW, shame on those Catholics who voted for a man who would deny the Faith as he did. He opened the floodgates to dissent and left us where we are today. Let's face it. He opened the floodgates to all that 1968 and beyond ushered in in the Church. We are still paying the price.
written by Liz, October 20, 2010
Louise, you are correct in all your observations - and then some. Kennedy was Catholic in name only. He is certainly not a role model for any Catholic. And you are correct, he and his family were "coached" by the likes of the Berrigans (I really hate to call them priests) in liberal Catholicism.
written by debby, October 20, 2010
Being a convert from right wing protestant fundamentalism born in 1960 and only being 3 when JFK was assassinated (but clearly remembering the whole drama that took place around me), all my "JFK" opinion was planted, watered and harvested on the other side of TCT's fence. Now almost 30 years old in the Catholic Faith, my world view (and very air that i breathe)is not merely "scented" with Holy Mother Church's incense (rarely experienced, i do lament)as seems to be represented in the "how nice we had a catholic president" sentiment. SHAME ON JFK and his lack of faith while USING FAITH FOR PERSONAL GAIN. SHAME ON ALL WHO STILL HOLD HIM UP AS SOME KIND OF MODEL. He was no Roman Catholic. America had a Catholic-in-name-only president in JFK. Maybe that's why we've never had another one. Wasn't his political career birthed during the Pre-Vat 2 era which so many people today tout as the time when there were "real" Catholics within the Church? Who educated him? What nuns? What priests? Who helped him distort his conscience? Who didn't go and boldly proclaim the one Truth to his face and have a show-down at the start? With his watered down religion, why would anyone FEAR ALLEGIANCE TO ROME? Truly, who would want a Kerry or Pelosi or Biden? The same kind of lame, blind, lost catholics who practice birth control, don't believe in the Real Presence, who'd rather sacrifice to see a celebrity or even Dr. James Dobson than the Holy Father, (I meet these people every time a Pope comes to America), on and on. The last paragraph was pathetic considering it was posted here......let's see how many will argue the same about Obama and his "blackness." I voted for a black man years ago, Alan Keys. He is someone EVERYONE of Faith could have been proud to call "my President of my country." After the current holder of the title's performance, I highly doubt that there will be another Black American president any time soon, and that is a shame......for that matter, when will America have a Real President again? A Leader who has substance? with Virtue, Faith, Character that is not changeable or self-serving?
I wish the valuable space here was dedicated to Dr. Mildred Jefferson's life and legacy rather than simply providing a side-bar link. HER LIFE WAS WORTH THE 5000 WORDS AND SO MUCH MORE.
written by Louise, October 20, 2010
Ooops! I was 27. Adding in the head gets harder as you get old. Subtracting is even worse. Forget multiplying and dividing altogether.
written by Martial Artist, October 20, 2010
As Louise has suggested in her statement that "it is possible for a CERTAIN KIND of Catholic to become president," looking at the immoral and unChristian positions which are taken by most of those elected, Republican and Democrat, including Catholic candidates, and they are positions which appear to be requisite to be elected in many parts of the country, I would suggest, contra Mr. Marlin's conclusion that the door for a Catholic who is truly faithful to the Church's teaching is quite firmly shut, although it may not be padlocked.

Mr. Marlin tacitly suggests as much with his parenthetical remark "(Who wants the kind of 'Catholic' that John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden represent?)."

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Louise, October 20, 2010
One of the Early Warning Signs of the Obama candidacy was that every one of his Catholic advisory committee was a dissenting Catholic.

Debby, I have thought the same thing many times: What chance will a black candidate have after the Obama presidency? None, from either party, I'm afraid. (I had forgotten, but I, too, had voted for Alan Keyes.) This is just one more of the tragedies of this administration.
written by Thomas C. Reeves, October 20, 2010
I would hope that the author will consult my books on JFK and Bishop Sheen. There is no whiff of hagiography in either study.
written by Mack Hall, October 20, 2010
An observant Catholic cannot be elected President and, more to the point, an observant Catholic would almost surely not seek the Presidency.
written by Deacon Dana, October 20, 2010
I'll never forget that 1960 election, the only election in which my parents voted for different presidential candidates. Mom and Dad were both Catholics of Irish heritage, and both long-time conservative Republicans. Mom voted for Nixon and Dad voted for Kennedy. Dad's vote was based on one thing, and one thing only: Kennedy was a Catholic, or at least claimed to be. And it was a vote he always regretted. In truth it was no different than the anti-Catholic votes of many Protestants, no different than the overwhelming black vote for Obama.
written by Bill Beckman, October 24, 2010
Two thoughts. JFK, while an ersatz Catholic, did not govern in a way inimical to Catholic teaching or to today's conservative principles. Second. Anti-Catholicism today is less overt but more insidious than in 1960. The late Bob Casey, popular governor of Pennsylvania, was a rock-ribbed Democrat and staunchly pro-life -- the kind of politician who matched up well with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He was denied a place at the podium of the Democratic National Convention in 1992 because he opposed abortion.

Question. Would an authentic Catholic (as measured by the Catechism) be nominated as the candidate of either major party today?

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