Religion also played an important role in the election of 1960. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic religion presented a substantial problem for Protestant voters; no other president in the history of the United States had been a Catholic before him. The opposition to a Roman Catholic president stemmed from two sources. First, many Protestants feared that a Catholic president’s allegiance to the Pope would present a conflict of interest. Many wondered whether a president with such religious allegiances would be able to maintain separation of church and state, since Roman Catholicism was a political force in addition to a religious one (Casey, 138). This was an ideal that needed to be upheld in the United States due to the right to religious freedom established by the First Amendment. These fears were not entirely without reason; another politician, John McCormick, Catholic Representative from Massachusetts, used his position in the House to aid the Catholic religion (Casey, 139). The second reason for strong opposition against Kennedy’s religion is that the United States had a long history of anti-Catholicism, especially from Protestants, starting in the 1830s and 40s when the first Catholic immigrants arrived, up to the years leading up to this election. As a result, any citizen with bias against Catholics was swayed toward Nixon instead of Kennedy.
The issue of religion also presented significant obstacles for Nixon, though. For example, when one Protestant minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, signed a document questioning Kennedy’s willingness “to bring American foreign policy into line with Vatican objectives,” many Americans viewed his words as disrespectful (Donaldson, 107). They believed Kennedy had proven his dedication to the Constitution throughout his career; for example, as a member of Congress, he had stood against monetary aid to religious schools, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Kennedy was mobbed by Republican Protestants to speak on this issue, and he certainly delivered, giving one of his most memorable speeches: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute… and where no man is denied office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him” (Donaldson, 108), especially since “the Constitution says there shall be no religious test for office” (Casey, 149):
Nixon realized this presented a substantial issue for him; he could not risk having voters think he was using his opponent’s religion against him. He therefore announced he did not want religion to be a factor in the election when he was interviewed on CNN’s Meet the Press, where he stated he had no doubt that Kennedy would look first and foremost to the Constitution if he was elected. However, it was widely believed that Nixon and his team played a large part in using religious intolerance against Kennedy in order to win votes. (starting at the 7:10 mark):
While Kennedy’s religion gained Nixon some votes, it also cost him some. Many were beginning to turn against the opposition toward Catholics, as indicated by the national outcry after the controversy surrounding Dr. Peale. Some Protestants voted for Kennedy to show they did not have such biases or that would not tolerate hatred toward another religion, and Kennedy won 34% of the Protestant vote. This trend was most apparent among Methodists, among whom Kennedy soon gained a majority of support, most notably in predominantly Protestant West Virginia (Casey, 186). Furthermore, in the last days of the campaign, Nixon and running mate Henry Cabot Lodge noted their support for federal monetary aid to religious institutions of education, something Kennedy had noted his stance against on constitutional grounds. This comment only expedited the pace with which Kennedy was gaining more Protestant support. The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs noted “Our people are averse to the use of the power of taxation for the support of churches or religious institutions,” which is one of the things they thought Kennedy would have done if he were elected president (Casey, 195). This blunder may have swung enough support to Kennedy among Southern Baptists in Texas to allow Kennedy to take the state: Kennedy only won Texas by 46,000 votes, out of a total of 2,289,000, and a lot of this blame can be assigned to Nixon’s comments on parochial schools (Casey, 199).
Moreover, many Jews and African Americans were swayed towards Kennedy, as they understood the discrimination he was facing due to his religion: he won 81% of the Jewish vote and 68% of the black vote (Rorabaugh, 182). These Jewish and Catholic voters in particular typically lived in big cities in New York, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which would help sway those states in Kennedy’s favor (Matthews, 136).
In the end, many believe Kennedy’s religion helped him win the election. In 1960, one-fourth of voters were Catholic, and they were often concentrated in key states. Kennedy won a majority of their votes, especially from Catholics in states like Texas, where anti-Catholicism was very widespread (Casey, 185). Nixon was right in noting that “the effect may well be to drive a small percentage of Catholic voters who are still on our side to vote for Kennedy out of protest” against bias (Donaldson, 107). In the end, Kennedy benefitted due to Catholic support, winning eleven of the fifteen strongly Catholic states (Rorabaugh, 180). Nixon would probably have won Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had it not been for the religious factor.