It is difficult for my younger friends to understand this, but there once was a very deep-seated anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States that can be traced back to the colonial era. Certainly, the natural animosity between Protestants and Catholics was carried over from Europe, an enmity born not only from religious differences but also from related political and class struggles. This was exacerbated by rulers who imposed one religion over the other, as King Henry VIII did in 1541 when he decreed the Church of England as the state religion of Ireland. The ensuing oppression and resistance festered over centuries. Mutual ill will became ingrained in succeeding generations.
The New World offered an appealing escape from religious oppression, a chance for a fresh start to rebuild a faith-based community unfettered by prejudice and misunderstanding. But as the colonial population mushroomed, those prejudices re-emerged. Such colonies as Virginia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island enacted legislation that restricted Catholic settlers or outlawed the practice of the Catholic faith. Edicts of toleration were eventually decreed during the Revolutionary period as the thirteen original colonies tried to find common ground together as the new United States of America.
But old prejudices died hard. Anti-Catholicism reached its peak in the nineteenth century as Protestant leaders became alarmed by a significant influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. The parochial school system was developed as a way to foster Catholic and ethnic identity, even as it insulated Catholic youth from the influence of Protestant teachers and non-Catholic students. Catholic schools were eyed with suspicion by Protestant authorities who fought hard to strip public funding from these sectarian institutions.
The fear that “Catholics take orders from the pope” caused Protestants to question Catholics’ allegiance to the United States. This fear was especially evident during the presidential campaign of 1928 when Al Smith, a Catholic, became the Democratic Party’s candidate against Herbert Hoover, a Republican Quaker. Anti-Catholic rhetoric, enflamed by Ku Klux Klan involvement, played a large part in Smith’s defeat.
By 1960, Catholics had gained substantial ground in American society. Formerly an immigrant working class, Catholics had now reached the upper echelons of leadership in business, the military and politics, with Catholic CEOs, colonels, Congressmen and Senators. There remained one more barrier to break: a Catholic President. And when John Kennedy became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, the old anti-Catholic prejudice once again raised its ugly head.
Americans had become more religiously tolerant since Al Smith’s 1928 campaign but Kennedy’s Catholicism still raised lingering doubts. Against the advice of his campaign managers, Kennedy took the issue head on by speaking to a group of Protestant ministers at a conference for the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. Here is a partial video of Kennedy’s landmark speech:
Click here for the complete text of Kennedy's speech.
John Kennedy won against Richard Nixon with one of the narrowest margins of victory in the history of presidential elections (until George W. Bush’s victory in 2000). The Catholic vote may not have tipped the election in Kennedy’s favor but clearly the anti-Catholic vote was no longer a factor. Historians consider Kennedy’s election as a breakthrough that helped to thaw the icy relations between Protestants and Catholics in America.
Of course, as a child, history and politics were over my head. All I knew was that President Kennedy was a Catholic. I was just beginning to discover my own faith in a Church that continued to treat me well throughout my childhood. The President and I shared the same faith. That made me quite proud, and it made my sorrow at his murder all the more profound.