Segment from Catholics in America

President or Puppet?

Presidential scholar Barbara Perry discusses Protestant fears that JFK would answer to the Pope, not the American people, if elected president — and the speech he gave trying to persuade Protestant voters he could be trusted.

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PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today, we’re exploring the long history of Catholics in America.


ED: Some of those tensions we just heard about between the American church and the Vatican were resolved in 1965 during a conference of sweeping reforms known as Vatican II. Officials in Rome took their cues from American clerics to embrace religious pluralism. This step, along with other reforms, signaled a more modern church.


And according to some scholars, for the first time, the council officially accepted the separation of church and state. Before Vatican II, that separation was a contentious issue, especially for Catholics who sought elected office here in the US.


BRIAN: Take John F. Kennedy. In 1960, he was only the second Roman Catholic presidential candidate in American history. His faith was a huge issue. Protestants, particularly in the South, worried that Kennedy would put the interests of the Vatican ahead of the interests of the United States.


BARBARA PERRY: That is, that the pope will be calling the shots.


BRIAN: This is Barbara Perry, Director of the Presidential Studies Institute at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.


BARBARA PERRY: Not just the pope head of the Catholic church, but the pope this foreign monarch will be attempting to take over the United States if there is a Catholic president.


BRIAN: Angst about papal influence ran so high that Protestant leaders, including prominent minister Norman Vincent Peale, held an anti-Kennedy conference and drafted a public statement warning voters of the perils of electing a Catholic president.


BARBARA PERRY: Because Catholics are taught that the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. Well, to the extent that any public policy issues sloshed over into faith, or certainly had anything to do with morals, the viewpoint would be among non-Catholics or anti-Catholics that we can’t possibly vote for this John Kennedy, a Catholic, because he will have to call the shots in the Oval Office based on what the pope is saying in the Vatican.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.


BRIAN: This is Kennedy addressing a group of mostly Southern Baptist clergyman in September 1960, less than a week after Peale and his colleagues released their manifesto. In a five-minute speech, Kennedy faced the issue head on with this message.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote, where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.


BRIAN: This is all a few years before Vatican II, where the church will officially change its position on the separation of church and state. How possible was it for JFK to state the beliefs we just heard and still maintain that he was a Catholic in good standing?


JOHN F. KENNEDY: First of all, he did attend mass every Sunday. According to his wife’s oral history, he prayed every night before he retired. But that was his private life. As he said, he was keeping his private faith private. What he was trying to do was keep the Catholics on board. But this is solely focused on the Protestants. So this is the time to defend himself, to go on the defense. And the fact of the matter is, he did have a record that was easy to defend. Because as he points out, he was not for those things that, perhaps, other Catholic prelates and, perhaps, other Catholic office holders were for, or that the pope or the bishops or the cardinals would have liked him to be for.


BRIAN: And I’d like to play one more clip for you and get your reaction to it. Here’s JFK about the history of religious freedom in America. Take a listen.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: This is the kind of America I believe in. And this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific. And the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened, I quote, “the freedoms for which our forefathers died.” And in fact, this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die. And when they fought at the shrine I visited today– the Alamo–


BARBARA PERRY: When he said to these people, probably most of whom had fought in World War II, or at least been in the service, he said, nobody asked me when I went off to fight in the South Pacific what my religion was. And then he tied in the Alamo. And he said, here’s the names of the people who fought at the Alamo.


BRIAN: Kennedy did not fight in the Alamo.


BARBARA PERRY: He did not.


BRIAN: I know that.


BARBARA PERRY: He did not fight in the Alamo. And you might say, boy, this is really pulling out all the stops, to go to Houston and talk about the Alamo. But by using these very poignant analogies and metaphors, and bringing in American civic culture and civic monuments and monuments to the very freedom that these people were fighting for, he was able to make the case. And this speech turned around Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale, who were satisfied by it.


BRIAN: Really? Did he acknowledge that, probably?


BARBARA PERRY: Yes. Yes. And Billy Graham as well.


BRIAN: Barbara, earlier in the show, we heard that as late as the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo was deeply critical about individual Catholics making decisions about the separation of church and state. From a Catholic perspective, how shocking was JFK’s insistence that he believed in a pure separation of church and state? How revolutionary was that among Catholics in 1960?


BARBARA PERRY: My parents, both very devout Catholics, believed very, very strictly in separation of church and state– in fact, to the point where they did not discuss their religion with their non-Catholic friends. And I think that that is what Kennedy represents in this speech. And some who have written on the history of the Catholic Church in the United States have pointed out that things like World War II, which brought together people of all different faiths in the fighting forces, as well as the GI Bill, which brought people of all different ethnic groups and nationalities together into the college campus atmosphere, I think that’s very much what my parents, part of the greatest generation– they were the same age as Kennedy– I think that that’s what he was representing. So I think it didn’t come as a shock.


BRIAN: That’s Pope Leo’s greatest fear.




BRIAN: That is the Americanization of the Catholic Church.


BARBARA PERRY: Indeed. And the fact that we know that Kennedy got 83% of the Catholic vote means that not everyone followed him. But he did that. And he also got about 1/3 of the Protestant vote. And in that very, very tight election that came down to a matter of 0.1% in the popular vote, that mattered.


BRIAN: Was Kennedy’s election a turning point for Catholics in politics? Or did Catholics have to continue to prove that they were just as American as their Protestant opponents?


BARBARA PERRY: Well, the good news, I think, for Catholics is that that election makes them, I believe, come into the mainstream of American political culture. And it also means that the Irish Catholic element that Kennedy, of course, was 100% a part of, seemed much less foreign now.


And so we might note that the very separationism that I believe reached its zenith for Kennedy’s election, for his nomination, for his speeches, and for the presentation of himself, is very much a part of his time, when in 1962, the US Supreme Court would ban organized prayer from the public schools. So really, Kennedy is reflecting that time. And we have had an intervening variable of the moral majority of the right, the evangelical Christian movement, and now, conservative Catholics running for the presidency.


So the separationism of the Kennedy years is really gone. In some ways, in Catholicism as well as in our political culture.


BRIAN: Thanks to Barbara Perry, Director of the Presidential Studies Institute at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.


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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.