A look back at the anti-Catholic media coverage when JFK ran for President

For all the verbiage heaped on that historic showdown between Kennedy and a fellow senator, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan says the religious issue was “exaggerated” by the national media.

In fact, professor Robert Rupp says, when the boyishly handsome Kennedy swept into the mountains out of Massachusetts, the real issue of the day was the economy.

America had been stung by a recession two years earlier and West Virginia found itself particularly damaged, with coal and steel production suffering. The jobless rate was the highest in the nation, and lame-duck President Dwight Eisenhower incurred the wrath of many mired in the deepening recession.

Boarded-up windows in vacated business structures were dubbed “Eisenhower Curtains.”

Yet for all of the misery prevalent in the Mountain State five decades ago, the national media riveted its attention almost exclusively on where Kennedy worshipped.

“It’s obvious that it was exaggerated in terms of the degree of prejudice in the state,” Rupp said in an interview.

“Facts don’t matter. Perceptions. You could make the point that the national press made this into a religious referendum. The way a lot of the newspapers reported it, that was the only angle.”

Rupp pointed to the coverage of a New York Times political correspondent, Bill Lawrence, that implied “a bigot behind every bush” in West Virginia.

Each time he covered a speech by the two Democratic heavyweights, Rupp says, the correspondent “went out and found some bigot that said, ‘I’m not gong to vote some Catholic.’ It was almost bordering on a joke.”

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Kennedy had a “morally destructive” effect on two generations of Catholic politicians

Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He had one purpose. He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive. Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected. And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely “wrong.” His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

Now those are strong statements. So I’ll try to explain them by doing three things. First, I want to look at the problems in what Kennedy actually said. Second, I want to reflect on what a proper Christian approach to politics and public service might look like. And last, I want to examine where Kennedy’s speech has led us – in other words, the realities we face today, and what Christians need to do about those realities.

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And the follow-up

Tom Roeser and the spirit of Fr. Ernie respond to certain Catholic commentators, politicians

Catholics bound by the moral law can agreeably participate in the secular political system where civil law may contradict the moral. But in no sense should the civil law intrude upon the conscience of the Catholic and require his compliance… nor frankly can the Catholic inflict the Church’s morals on the state beyond what is understood as the democratic process.

It is important to accept this as Murray’s wise guide-and nothing more. It certainly didn’t mean that Murray recommended that Catholics surrender their consciences and bow to unjust civil law. Far from it. But this is what John F. Kennedy implied when he addressed the Houston ministerial association in a speech written by one John Cogley, who ultimately left the Church. In his speech Kennedy assuaged the Protestant ministers by saying that he would not inflict his Church’s views on the country, that he would serve as president who happened to be Catholic-not as a Catholic president. This sounded dangerously scandalous to one of Catholic formation-except that Kennedy added this which I paraphrase: if an issue ever arises where civil action contradicts my religious conscience, I shall resign. That was enough to close the credibility gap.

Not that the John Kennedy we have come to understand would allow his Catholicism to interfere with his duties. In fact it is commonly known now that he did in fact allow sexual immorality to coincide with his duties and in fact it is still an open question as to whether his immorality… his promiscuous attentions to a young woman also the mistress of a Mafia chieftain… did him in! I shall not digress further! [Laughter].

… “There are two powers by which this world is chiefly ruled: the sacred authority of the Popes and the royal power. Of these the priestly power is much more important because it has to render account for the Kings of men themselves at the Divine Tribunal. For you know that although you have the highest place in dignity over the human race, yet you must submit yourself faithfully to those who have charge of divine things and look to them for the means of your salvation… For if in matters pertaining to the administration of public discipline, the bishops of the Church, knowing that the Empire has been conferred on you by divine instrumentality, are themselves obedient to your laws, lest in purely material affairs contrary opinions may seem to be voiced, with what willingness I ask you, should you obey those to whom is assigned the administration of divine mysteries?”

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