John F. Kennedy is often remembered as America’s first Catholic president, but his nomination did not come without its own unique hurdles. Kennedy’s Catholic faith made him stand out from the usual presidential nominee, and not always in a good way. While his popularity post-mortem is quite high, his critics at the time were not enthused about a president whose Catholic identity, they feared, would equate with a conflict of interest between the authority of the Catholic Church and the needs of the American public.
Kennedy himself, however, made it a point to publicly dissociate from his Catholic identity, even calling his religious beliefs an “intrusion” into the campaign for the Democratic nomination (Phillips). This could be attributed to two things– a fear of hostility towards a Catholic candidate or a desire to promote unity and focus on Kennedy’s more relevant qualifications and issue positions. In his famous January 1960 statement announcing his candidacy for President, he makes no mention of his religious faith and instead focuses on the relevant issues of the 1960s as well as his years of service to the United States both as a senator and as a naval officer. He even explicitly states in a 1960 New York Times article, that he is “not the Catholic Candidate for President” (Phillips). He highlights his religious affiliation as a simple fact, and emphasizes that there are more relevant political issues for the American public and the press to focus on. I found this article particularly interesting because Kennedy seldom speaks about his Catholicism in public, instead choosing to focus on aspects of policy preferences and attempting to shift the focus away from the subject of religion, the way he does in his presidential candidacy statement. In this speech, he makes an explicit statement about his religious identity and then goes on to clearly ensure to the American public that it will be a nonissue in his Presidency, if he is elected.
Though he seldom discussed his Irish Catholic roots, Kennedy was not only the first Catholic President, but also the first Irish president, according to a Chicago Tribune article, which provides a detailed history of his ancestral lineage. His great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, emigrated to America in 1847, attracted to the wealth of American opportunities and the possibility of upward mobility as well as the need to escape famine in his hometown (Veysey). Unfortunately, Patrick may not have gotten as warm of a reception as he would have liked, with the increase in anti-Irish Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment running rampant in the US at this time. In his book The Irish Way, Barrett emphasizes the blatant xenophobia and adversity that the Irish faced upon their arrival to the United States after the Great Famine (5). Veysey’s Chicago Tribune article makes it clear that once Patrick Kennedy emigrated to America, the American side of the Kennedy family fell out of contact with their Irish roots, and they were clearly fortunate enough to belong to the upwardly mobile “lace curtain” Irish (Barrett). This prevented the Irish and Irish-American sides of the family from getting to know each other very well– despite Joseph Kennedy being the ambassador to Britain’s Court of St. James, he made no effort to learn about his heritage until 1947, and John himself, during his time as Massachusetts Congressman, was still unknown by his relatives in Ireland (Veysey). Patrick Kennedy’s initial emigration and his grandson Joseph Kennedy’s immense success as a businessman and politician enabled the Kennedy family’s worth to soar, and allowed John the privilege to have such a lucrative career in public office, providing the ultimate example of an immigration success story.
Despite his efforts to remove his role as future President from his personal role in the Catholic faith, Kennedy still drew sharp criticism and encountered doubts as to whether he could effectively separate the two facets of his life. In a New York Times article, Bishop Oxnam of the Methodist Church questioned whether Kennedy, as president, could be free from Roman Catholic hierarchical control, or if he could exercise independent judgment as an American citizen (“Bishop Asks if Kennedy Can Be Free Ruler”). The Methodist bishop held tightly to the notion that a man ought to be loyal to his faith while simultaneously defending the Methodist church and insinuating that Methodists make no attempts to control their candidates for public office (“Bishop Asks if Kennedy Can Be Free Ruler”) a clear ideological bias against Catholic candidates. Meanwhile, Kennedy consistently tried to dissociate from the power structures of the Catholic Church.
Despite John F. Kennedy’s inherent wealth and privilege, his pathway to the presidency paints a detailed picture of the nuances of running for President while balancing one’s Irishness and Catholic-ness, proving that no matter how much wealth, privilege, and power one holds, the inherent biases of the American people will ultimately become evident.
Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. Viking, 2014.
“BISHOP ASKS IF KENNEDY CAN BE FREE RULER.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jan 04, 1960, pp. 5. ProQuest, http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/182414367?accountid=12163.
Phillips, Wayne. “KENNEDY, BACKED BY HUMPHREY, HITS ISSUE OF RELIGION.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Apr 22, 1960, pp. 1. ProQuest, http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/115014406?accountid=12163.
Special to The New,York Times. “The Kennedy Statement.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 03, 1960, pp. 44. ProQuest, http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/114962966?accountid=12163.
VEYSEY, ARTHUR. “Reporter Visits Kennedy’s Ancestral Home.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file), May 26, 1963, pp. 1-a3. ProQuest, http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/182681207?accountid=12163.