Book Review: 'The Making of a Catholic President' by Shaun Casey

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By Tom Perriello
Sunday, July 12, 2009


Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960

By Shaun A. Casey

Oxford Univ. 261 pp. $27.95

As I began campaigning for Congress in late 2007, I attended a dinner of African American leaders in Danville, Va., a city once torn apart by a bitter and bloody desegregation struggle. Nationally, the Obama campaign was full of steam, but no one at the dinner that night wanted to talk about it. My enthusiasm was met with sympathetic but knowing looks from elders that said, "Son, we've been down this road before."

A few weeks later, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus and expanded our sense of what was possible in American politics.

Shaun Casey's "The Making of Catholic President" takes us through a similar breakthrough campaign, John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency. Back in 1928, the massive defeat of Al Smith, the first-ever Catholic presidential candidate, had locked in the conventional wisdom that a Catholic could never be elected to America's highest office. In that context, Kennedy's winning of the 1960 Democratic nomination seemed to spell defeat for his party.

Casey, who advised the Obama campaign on matters of religion, here reveals the behind-the-scenes anti-Catholic campaign strategies of Kennedy's opponent in 1960. Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon cooperated with various organizations seeking to convince Americans that Kennedy would embody their anti-Catholic fears. A Catholic president could not support the separation of church and state, their pamphlets and meetings warned; he would want to fund parochial schools, deny artificial birth-control funding to developing countries and send an ambassador to the Vatican. The governing moral structure for his judgment would be his religion, not the Constitution.

Nixon had pledged not to discuss religion, although his repetition of this pledge served as a constant reminder of Kennedy's Catholicism. Kennedy, on the other hand, addressed religion at a few watershed moments: during the primaries in Wisconsin and West Virginia, in the "New Frontier" speech at the Democratic National Convention and, most famously, in his speech to evangelical leaders in Texas. A late-breaking editorial from an influential Southern Baptist organization was seen as releasing evangelicals to vote for Kennedy. Titled "Vote Your Convictions," it noted Kennedy's repeated assertion that he was "definitely committed to the principle of separation of Church and State" and concluded by encouraging "everyone to vote for someone."

The question I find myself asking, despite Kennedy's success with evangelicals and, of course, his ultimate victory, is whether America really wanted to elect a Catholic. Would fewer mistakes in the Nixon camp have yielded a different result? Would we perhaps be reading instead about the anti-Catholic fervor of the late 1950s?

I ask this both because Casey provides compelling evidence of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment at the time and because of the parallel with the 2008 election of Obama. I wonder whether Kennedy's victory proves that America was ready for a Catholic president or whether he, like Obama, managed to convince the electorate that he would not be captive to his background and thus should not be labeled a "Catholic president"; Obama seems to have accomplished the same thing with regard to his race.

Kennedy changed the debate in part by showing up and engaging the other side. Unlike his opponent, whose fear mongering has become the norm in politics today, Kennedy accentuated his strengths. The brilliance of the Obama and Kennedy campaigns may have been each candidate's ability to ask voters to put their faith in what they might not be ready for; to make them wonder if Americans could transcend bigotry; and then to convince them that, in order to face the daunting future, they must.

Tom Perriello is a Democratic congressman from Virginia.

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