Cultural and regional responses to John F. Kennedy's Catholicism in the 1960 presidential campaign

Date of Completion

January 1999


Religion, History of|History, United States|Political Science, General




In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy's Catholicism prompted several controversial debates. The contest between Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon catalyzed profound disagreements about fundamental, dogmatic convictions. Ideology and local politics conditioned diverse and passionate responses to the Catholic candidate. This dissertation categorizes American reactions to Kennedy's religion in cultural and regional terms. At various times, Americans employed nativism, liberalism, pluralism, and anticommunism either to support or oppose the Catholic candidate. Perspectives of the campaign's religious issue also differed substantially in California, Georgia, Michigan, and New York. Although previous studies have focused on Kennedy's political and religious behavior, this project discovers greater significance in American perspectives on this Catholic candidate. ^ The dissertation's first two chapters discuss U.S. attitudes toward Catholics prior to 1960, and the final five analyze ideological and local discussions of Kennedy's candidacy. Chapter One provides the context of non-Catholic reactions to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholicism. Chapter Two reviews reactions to New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to receive a major party's presidential nomination. Smith's landslide defeat discouraged party leaders from nominating another Catholic. The third chapter examines how nativists portrayed Kennedy as a threat to Protestant dominance of U.S. cultural traditions. Chapters Four through Six discuss how liberalism, pluralism, and anticommunism affected debates about Kennedy's Catholicism. The fourth chapter examines liberal disagreements about whether Kennedy endorsed Catholic interpretations of church-state separation. Chapter Five analyzes how politicians manipulated pluralist ideology regarding the Catholic issue. The sixth chapter discusses why American anticommunism affected attitudes toward Kennedy's religion. Chapter Seven analyzes how local political circumstances in four states conditioned reactions to Kennedy's candidacy. ^ This study exposes ideological fault lines which previous students of the 1960 campaign overlooked. Kennedy's elite socioeconomic status, and ability to balance opposing opinions on church-state controversies improved impressions of Catholic Americans. In the general election, Kennedy received a slim plurality. This demonstrated America's lack of political consensus in 1960. The individual decisions which elected the nation's first, and only, Catholic president derived from contentious cultural and regional discussions. ^