The Kennedy Speech that Stoked the Rise of the Christian Right

On a sweaty September evening in Houston, John F. Kennedy stood at the lectern in a downtown hotel facing the gravest threat to his presidential campaign.

Arrayed before Kennedy in the opulent ballroom were roughly 300 of the South’s most respected protestant ministers. They had invited the young senator from Massachusetts into their lair to do the nearly impossible: disprove their accusations that Kennedy’s Catholic faith, and his ostensible allegiance to the pope, would undermine religious freedom in the United States. Kennedy knew that he was unlikely to convince the men in the room, but he hoped that by confronting his detractors head-on he might defuse the kind of anti-Catholic sentiment that had doomed the White House bid of New York Gov. Al Smith a little more than three decades earlier.

Kennedy had faced an uphill battle to even get the Democratic nomination in 1960, much less earn the trust of Protestant stalwarts. Southern conservatives condemned the Democratic Party’s increasingly liberal tendencies, especially regarding civil rights, while evangelical preachers stoked old sectarian hatreds from the pulpit. Far-right activists flooded states with anti-Catholic pamphlets featuring fear-mongering titles like “To Kill Protestants” and “Awake an Angry God.” Some progressives disparaged the Catholic Church as an authoritarian, anti-liberal institution. Even Catholic Democrats feared a Protestant backlash. As journalist G. Scott Thomas noted, Kennedy seemed “much too young and much too Catholic.”

The religion controversy perplexed Kennedy. Yes, he had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but Kennedy was not particularly given to religious devotion. In a pique of youthful rage, he’d once scandalized his parents by threatening to abandon the church. Kennedy’s womanizing was already an open secret within Washington circles, but to right-wing Protestants, he was a pious zealot, a Roman double agent.

Some argued that liberalism was a pretext for Marxist revolution. Senator Barry Goldwater, the far-right Arizona Republican, described Kennedy’s platform as a “blueprint for socialism.” Religious critics combined Cold War fears of creeping socialism with anti-Catholic conspiracies, which, of course, made little logical sense given the Soviet regime’s intolerance toward organized religion. “[T]he heart of the communist menace,” declared one Protestant organization, stems from “the threat of Roman Catholic control of our culture.”

Then, late in the campaign season, Kennedy received a speaking invitation from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (GHMA). A number of political consultants urged him to ignore it. Former House Speaker Sam Rayburn, an old-hand Texas Democrat, warned, “They’re mostly Republicans and they’re out to get you.” Houston had a deep history of rabid anti-Catholicism, enforced unofficially but effectively during the Roaring ’20s by the Ku Klux Klan. The stakes were high indeed—Kennedy’s campaign hinged on quelling the theological storm. Native son Lyndon Johnson’s presence on the ticket and the state’s long Democratic tradition might not be enough to convince Protestant skeptics. With great reluctance, Kennedy accepted. The only way through, he decided, was to venture straight into its teeth.

Ted Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s most trusted advisers, fretted before the speech: “We can win or lose the election right there in Houston on Monday night.”

Years of intense campaigning, not to mention his combat duty as a Navy officer in World War II, had prepared Kennedy for this moment even as he faced an ideologically hostile crowd. Kennedy tempered his staccato Boston brogue into an earnest cadence, cautioning the ministers against harnessing religious prejudice as a political weapon. Attacks against religious minorities were un-American, he intoned, “Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you,” foreshadowing a future in which evangelicals would come to see themselves as victims, aggrieved by attacks against “Christian America.”

Just under an hour later, Kennedy would emerge from the ordeal largely unscathed. In fact, there is evidence that the speech, which was televised live across Texas and taped for future national broadcasts, provided the crucial margin of victory in November. But Kennedy’s success was double-edged. While he proved during his brief time in office that politicians could separate their political lives from their spiritual ones, it was the very fact that he was able to draw such a clear line between church and state that most alarmed the Christian right. Ultimately, it was his marginalization of religion in public life that, over the next several decades, empowered the Christian right to reassert itself by using the Republican Party to advance its political and cultural agenda.

In the long run, it became evident that at least some of the assembled Protestant leaders on that night in Houston were not as preoccupied by Kennedy’s Catholicism as they were with his liberal policies, most of which were not endorsed by the Vatican anyway. Indeed, religious conservatives feared that Kennedy and the broader liberal coalition, which included many who wore their Christian faith lightly, could more or less box them out from any influence inside the White House.

Kennedy’s speech has been cited innumerable times as one of the clearest calls for a separation of church and state, not to mention religious liberty. But, religious conservatives conceived of an America in which Protestant Christianity formed a central, immutable core. Thus, they fought to keep church and state separate while creating their own right-wing blend of religion and politics. They accomplished this by preaching Christian nationalism at the pulpit, organizing campaigns through conservative religious groups, and coordinating their actions with the faith-friendly business community. Eventually, when pressed by broader societal change, Protestant and Catholic conservatives joined forces with the Republican Party, forming a national pan-Christian movement to wage war against political and religious liberalism.

And it began with a loss on their home field.

Kennedy earned a standing ovation that night in Houston, but his prepared talk was the easy part. The real crucible came afterward.

No one screened the questions from the ministers, and across the state, Texans tuned in to watch the tense repartee unfold in real time. At the microphone was the second inquisitor, Howard C. Rutenbar, a balding, thin-faced reverend, furrowing his brow about Kennedy’s support for organized labor. These political issues, Rutenbar admitted, “are much more important than any religious issue.”

The distinction between religious disagreement and political activism frequently blurred to the point of invisibility. Rutenbar’s statement revealed a poorly kept secret: that conservative Protestants often merged religious and secular concerns despite demanding that Kennedy maintain a strict church-state separation. In reality, both Kennedy’s liberalism and his Catholic background stoked right-wing hysteria about impending state tyranny, regardless of whether it came from the papal crosier or the capitol.

Kennedy parried most of the questions—which generally were delivered with a good-faith politeness—by referencing his years of public service and dedication to church-state separation.

Then, some 20 minutes into the questioning, up to the microphone strode Vernon Elisha “V.E.” Howard, a Church of Christ pastor and founder of the “International Gospel Hour” radio show. Sporting horned-rimmed spectacles, slicked-back hair and an ivory pocket square, Howard exuded a certain evangelical intensity. He thumbed through his notebook and, upon finding the right page, began to quote, and twist the meaning of, obscure passages from official Catholic texts such as the Catholic Encyclopedia and Explanation of Catholic Morals.

While Howard droned—citation after cherry-picked citation—Kennedy’s face betrayed a twinge of frustration and bewilderment. After 3½ minutes of Howard’s drawling filibuster, a murmur rippled through the crowd. Ministers shifted restlessly. Even they, most of whom were no fans of Kennedy, seemed impatient for Howard to actually ask a question.

Finally, he reached his crescendo, “Do you subscribe to the authority of the present pope which I have quoted from in these quotations?” Howard was baiting Kennedy, hoping to expose the Democratic candidate as either a disloyal Catholic or a papal Trojan horse. Kennedy navigated by instinct. Answering methodically to avoid a costly late-inning misstep, Kennedy rejected Howard’s premise, arguing that no one, not even the pope, could direct his public service. Howard sprung his trap.

“Thank you, sir,” Howard said, a smirk playing at his lips. “Then you do not agree with the pope in that statement?”

“Now, you see, that’s why I wanted to be careful,” Kennedy replied with the hint of a smile, “because that statement, it seems to me, is taken out of context.” Kennedy had expected bad faith inquiries intended to ensnare him in a thicket of Catholic orthodoxy, but he refused to wilt. “I would not want to go into details on a sentence that you read to me which I may not understand completely.”

A few ministers in the audience applauded Kennedy’s riposte, but Howard refused to give the candidate the final word. Before relinquishing the microphone, Howard huffed, “I understand you didn’t explain anything.”

Kennedy never lost his composure, and by the conclusion it seemed as if he’d exorcised his campaign’s demon. He even extended an olive branch by stating at the end that the ministers’ inquiries were not “prejudiced or bigoted.” Kennedy acquitted himself so well that GHMA President George B. Reck told some of the 80 reporters in attendance, “I think the eye of the hurricane has blown past.” However, Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel of Houston’s Temple Beth Israel, one of the handful of nonProtestant ministers present, remained unconvinced. “I doubt that any minds were changed,“ he said, “because of the deep-rooted prejudice here.”

Indeed, Rabbi Schachtel’s prediction proved correct: The tempest refused to dissipate.

“The issue will continue with the same intensity as before,” declared K. Owen White, pastor of Houston’s Downtown First Baptist Church. The vortex of bigotry seemed to expand despite Kennedy’s forthright address. Historian Shaun A. Casey called it “one of the last pan-Protestant moments,” a unified crusade against Catholics and liberals led by right-wing Protestant organizations like the National Evangelical Association. Activists urged ministers to deliver anti-Catholic sermons on October 30, Reformation Sunday. Two hundred thousand copies of an anti-Kennedy sermon by W.A. Criswell, the square-jawed doyen of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, spread around the country. These ministers were doing exactly what Kennedy vowed he would not: transforming religious pulpits into political stumps.

The conservative business community subsidized the spiritual animus. Dallas insurance magnate Carr P. Collins purchased hours of radio airtime to stir anti-Catholic sentiments. H. L. Hunt, a Texas oil tycoon and eccentric conspiracy theorist, funded the distribution of Criswell’s sermon. Even Christianity Today, a mainstream Protestant periodical underwritten by right-wing businessmen, implied that voting for Kennedy betrayed Protestant values. The Fair Campaign Practices Committee collected a staggering 360 different anti-Catholic tracts during the campaign, demonstrating the fusion of right-wing business interests, Protestant evangelicals and political conservatives, a burgeoning coalition that would soon come to dominate American politics.

On November 8, 1960, Americans cast over 68 million votes. It was a squeaker—one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by just over 100,000 in the popular vote. Ironically, election autopsies revealed that the religion controversy broke in Kennedy’s favor. The constant hammering alienated moderate Protestants and created a fatigue surrounding the issue. Additionally, Kennedy’s civil rights advocacy and status as a religious minority boosted his numbers among African American and Latino voters.

In the Lone Star State, Kennedy won more Protestant-dominated counties than Republican Dwight Eisenhower had in the previous cycle, a phenomenon partially explained by Texas’ strong Democratic tradition and Johnson’s presence on the ticket. However, Kennedy’s margin of victory in Texas was a razor thin 50,000 votes. The Democrats lost most metropolitan areas, including Houston. In fact, just 34 percent of white Protestants voted for Kennedy across the nation. Catholics, on the other hand, turned out in droves. In the previous two elections, Catholics had split between Republican and Democratic candidates, but in 1960 nearly 80 percent voted for Kennedy, neutralizing any gains Nixon made from disaffected Protestants.

Kennedy’s speech before the ministerial association was a critical factor in winning the presidency, but it failed to shepherd conservative Protestants into the Democratic tent.

Nearly two years to the day after Kennedy’s speech, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart traveled to Houston to revisit the controversy. Did right-wing ministers still consider the first Catholic president a subversive Trojan horse? Apparently not. Reverend White, one of Kennedy’s most tenacious interrogators, admitted that the president had “taken a good strong position on separation of church and state.” Another minister concluded, “The religious issue has just paled away.”

Like George Reck’s prediction to reporters shortly after the speech, this proved wildly optimistic as well. Far from paling, it was just getting started.

As the fear of Catholic influence receded from its fever pitch, Protestants worried that their political and cultural influence was fading. Nearly half of all Americans reported attending church once a week at the dawn of 1960. However, by the end of the decade that number had dropped by roughly 10 percent. Polls showed that most Americans still considered religion important, but faith seemed to be declining. “There’s competition from scientific thought and a materialistic culture,” lamented a spokesman for the National Council of Churches, “The church doesn’t enjoy the unique position it used to—and it knows it. There are lots of people who just don’t need religion.” Minister Billy Graham described the decline in starker terms: “America is facing a moral emergency and a moral crisis which threatens the very future of the nation.”

The country took a secular turn during the 1960s. Counterculture movements flourished, threatening the fabric of traditional American society. To counter what they perceived as their advancing irrelevance, right-wing Christians supercharged their political activism by creating a broad pan-Christian movement—one that included Catholics, no longer the Roman boogeyman—to achieve conservative gains. In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelical theologian Harold O. J. Brown concluded that conservative Protestants “must recognize now [that] the God-fearing, Christ-honoring Catholic and the Evangelical Protestant are in the same situation.” At a joint rally with some Catholic cardinals, Graham confessed that he felt “much closer to the Roman Catholic tradition than to some of the more liberal Protestants.” It was a stunning admission, one that evinced a diminishing of sectarian tensions in favor of a unified conservative front.

William F. Buckley Jr., the founder and editor of National Review, wanted to help bridge the gap separating Protestant and Catholic conservatives. A Catholic himself, Buckley tried to walk a fine line during the 1960 election, decrying the swell of anti-Catholic bigotry as an “unhealthy impulse” but noting that ignoring a candidates’ religion would lead voters to make a “superficial judgment.” Buckley and his fellow traditionalists wanted a conservative leader with strong religious convictions. When considering the idea of a president unrestrained by religious morality, Buckley wrote, “God save us from such an event.” Ultimately, Kennedy’s liberalism, not his Catholicism, led Buckley and his National Review cohort to reject the Democratic candidate.

The fledgling religious right gradually aligned with the Republican Party while waging a culture war against liberalism. In 1968, religious conservatives marshaled behind Richard Nixon, a man they now viewed as an interdenominational unifier, a moral lodestar in a time of crisis. Religious activists, including Catholic stalwart Phyllis Schlafly, created the “Pro Life” campaign in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision and denounced the Equal Rights Amendment as a destroyer of gender norms. Defeating social and political liberalism, not Catholic influence, was the order of the day.

The religious right came into full bloom during the 1980s. Fundamentalist evangelicals, including Criswell, condemned Democrat Jimmy Carter as a milquetoast moderate, despite Carter’s deep Baptist devotion. Ronald Reagan reaped the rewards of the long-brewing fusion between conservative Republicans and right-wing Christians. Criswell welcomed Reagan to his Dallas megachurch during the 1980 presidential campaign, and four years later, when the Republican National Convention came to Dallas, Criswell gave the benediction. During the two decades following Kennedy’s campaign, this right-wing ecumenical coalition became a critical vanguard of the modern conservative movement.

Kennedy’s speech in Houston may well have helped to swing the 1960 election in his favor, but it also marked a tectonic political realignment. As right-wing Protestants forged an alliance with conservative Catholics and sorted themselves into the Republican Party, the religious right became an electoral linchpin, a red firewall that ushered in an era of conservative dominance and Protestant identity politics. The specific distrust toward Kennedy’s Catholicism evaporated only to coalesce around other religions. The conservative boogeyman proved malleable; it was Catholics in 1960 but Muslims a generation later, each apparition conjured by a zeitgeist of anti-liberalism and Christian nationalism. In the 21st century, as nativism smolders and right-wing terrorists target Muslim and Jewish houses of worship, the complex relationship between religion and politics seems as discordant and ineluctable as ever.

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