It was just 60 years ago, on Jan. 20, 1961, that John Fitzgerald Kennedy placed his right hand on a Bible, swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, and became the first Catholic to serve as president of the United States.
That simple civic act shattered a long-standing prejudice against American Catholics. For more than a century, Americans commonly believed that Catholics were more loyal to the pope than they were to the Constitution. How could any faithful Catholic ever hold the highest office in the land?
That was the challenge faced by Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to win the presidential nomination of a major political party. When Smith ran on the Democratic ticket in 1928, he was greeted with open hostility and prejudice. It was no surprise that he lost the election in a landslide.
But a lot changed in American society between 1928 and 1960. The nation faced a horrible economic depression, a world war and an economic recovery during those three decades. Catholics stood shoulder to shoulder with other Americans in rebuilding the economy and defending the nation.
By 1960, there was less concern that Catholics were disloyal to the American experiment. And throughout the election campaign, Kennedy assured voters of his firm belief in the separation of church and state. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he said. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate who also happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”
And the results on Election Day were close but clear. Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon and ended the popular notion that a Catholic could never be elected president. What was muddled, however, was the impact of the Catholic vote. Was it decisive? Pundits and political scientists were not sure. Kennedy had benefited from additional Catholic votes, but so had Nixon. More important, Kennedy had won several states with large majorities of non-Catholic voters.
The appeal of JFK’s “new frontier” for America trumped any apprehension about his religion. In the thousand days of the Kennedy presidency, there was hardly a concern that religion had any impact on public policy. And in the 60 years since, no Catholic who ran for president was ever challenged for his religious views.
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As we take note of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the second Catholic to become president and Kamala Harris as the first woman to become vice president, we should reflect on the way JFK appealed to the best in the American people.
His presidency reinvigorated comity, collegiality and idealism in American politics — something we have lost in recent years. Regardless of our individual political or religious views, let’s recommit ourselves to the values that JFK called us to embrace.
Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board. Twalch47@gmail.com