Religion in Politics

September 9, 1959

Report Outline
Recurrence of the Religious Issue
Anti-Catholicism in Past Campaigns
Catholic Vote and the 1960 Election
Special Focus

Recurrence of the Religious Issue

For the first time since 1928, when Al Smith was defeated in a bitterly contested election that split the Solid South, a prominent Catholic layman, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. With the party's national convention less than a year away, public opinion polls among Democratic voters show Kennedy running neck and neck with Adlai E. Stevenson in a large field of possible rivals. Stevenson, twice-defeated Democratic standard-bearer, has said he will not be a candidate in 1960. Political observers, including backers of other aspirants for the nomination, at present generally regard Kennedy as “the man to beat.”

Effects of Religion on Kennedy's Candidacy

Among professional politicians, Kennedy's bid for the nomination has raised once more the delicate question of a supposed anti-Catholic bias in the American electorate, and the related question of the influence of the so-called Catholic vote. Bias against election, of a Catholic as President is widely regarded as having played a decisive part in Smith's defeat. Without exception, political leaders are agreed in their public statements that Kennedy's religious faith should make no difference one way or the other. “As far as I am concerned,” President Eisenhower told his press conference on July 9, “it's a perfectly extraneous question. …If I saw any man that I thought was really a qualified, responsible individual running for office, my vote would never be changed on the basis of his religion.”

Judgments of the politicians vary, however, as to whether a Catholic actually could be elected to the highest office. On this score, President Eisenhower had “no opinion whatso ever.” But former President Truman on a television panel program, May 4, said he thought a candidate's religion would vitally affect his chances. “I think it is too bad that that is the case.” He added: “I don't think it ought to happen in this country. I am giving you a frank answer to it.” On the other hand, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, leading Republican hopeful for 1960, told reporters, Oct. 31, 1958, that Kennedy's religion “would not be a liability” in any nation-wide election. “Very fortunately,” Nixon went on, “the 1928 attitudes regarding religious bias and religious prejudice have changed substantially.”

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Religion and Politics