The Second Catholic President: Prelude and Prospects

by Patrick Lacroix, author of John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith

Until Joe Biden’s victory last November, the United States had not elected a Catholic president since 1960. In that interval, though many Catholics aspired to hold the nation’s highest public office, only one—John Kerry in 2004—won his party’s presidential nomination. It is as though the presidency again became a political forbidden fruit for Catholics in the wake of John F. Kennedy. Though the most recent election does not have the symbolic significance of Kennedy’s triumph over Richard Nixon, pundits and scholars of religion are already debating what Biden’s breakthrough says about the current landscape of faith and politics in this country.

At first glimpse, the connection between the two Catholic presidents seems tenuous—and not merely because of the amount of time that has elapsed or because Donald Trump has been a political creature like no other. In the early 1960s, after an election campaign that pitted them against anti-Catholic sentiments as much as the Republican ticket, President Kennedy and liberal allies cast new lines of religious activism. Though this was not, at the outset, a conscious or coherent political program, its effects were undeniable: religious bigotry declined, new faith-based alliances formed, and henceforth Catholic involvement in politics would mean confronting moral issues largely absent from the debates of 1960.

Despite a popular narrative that identifies the election of 1960 as a decisive blow against religious prejudice, Kennedy’s victory did not in itself change hearts and minds about Catholics’ ability to fulfill their constitutional obligations. Only once in office did he have the opportunity to challenge certain Protestants’ preconceived notions and substantiate the pledges he made on the campaign trail, most famously in his September 1960 address to Protestant ministers in Houston.

In his first months in office, Kennedy lived up to one of those pledges by proposing federal aid to education that excluded religious schools. While incurring the ire of leading figures in the Catholic Church, Kennedy earned political capital among moderate Protestants who traditionally supported the Democrats and whose religious reservations might be overcome.

Other administration officials would later recall that Kennedy, adviser Theodore Sorensen, and their team occasionally wrote speeches that grated religious audiences. There may have been bitterness lingering from the religious battle they had waged during the election as well as a desire to move to issues of substance. When faced with unexpected foreign and domestic crises, however, Kennedy embraced the religious forces that shared his political vision.

In a little-known twist, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Catholic figures with Vatican connections facilitated communication between the White House and the Soviet Union. With Pope John XXIII and editor Norman Cousins serving as secret intermediaries, the president and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to an understanding regarding a nuclear test ban. During the summer of 1963, the White House openly courted American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews committed to détente and enrolled their support in the Senate’s ratification of the test ban treaty.

A similar story played out in the struggle for racial justice. From the Albany, Georgia, campaign of 1962 onwards, liberal white clergy took part in the Black freedom movement in ever-rising numbers. That interfaith and interracial coalition further cohered at the National Conference on Religion and Race held in Chicago, in January 1963. Present during that four-day event was R. Sargent Shriver, an unofficial administration observer.

When Kennedy proposed concrete measures to end segregation and discrimination in February and June 1963, he borrowed from the theme of moral justice propounded at the Chicago conference. The White House invited white and Black clergymen from all parts of the nation in June; they discussed means of advancing racial justice with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and forged an alliance that might ensure the passage of the civil rights bill. By then, the president had at last spoken publicly about his Catholic beliefs. At Boston College, he stated that he shared Pope John’s vision of social justice and international peace—a progressive vision which, when put into action in 1963, announced new lines of religious debate.

The coalition of likeminded people of faith, a coalition that cut across denominational lines, quickly pushed past civil rights and organized itself against the war in Vietnam. Though Kennedy was then in repose at Arlington National Cemetery, liberals of all faiths took advantage of the declining religious animosities that the late president had helped foster; they also embraced the ideological legacy of his final year in office. These energies crystallized in the form of the Religious Left, to which an interdenominational Religious Right would quickly and vigorously respond.

Kennedy’s efforts to serve as an impartial interfaith broker had helped expose divisions within denominations. Liberal Catholics found that they could work more profitably with liberal Protestants than with more conservative members of their own church. The same happened on the other side of the political spectrum. Though conservative white Catholics and Protestants never came together in common organizations in substantial numbers, they certainly voted as one during election campaigns thanks to shared views of abortion and religious liberty. Despite Trump’s reluctance to discuss his own moral core, this de facto conservative alliance was by no means a matter of the past during the 2016 contest. There is actually little evidence that Biden’s victory in November reflected a significant shift in the landscape of faith and politics.

Like Kennedy, Biden is facing unfriendly bishops who emphasize different aspects of Catholic social teaching. Whereas the first Catholic president won 80 percent of the Catholic vote, however, the second cannot count on such a committed bloc of supporters in his own church. This reflects Democrats’ struggle to speak sincerely to people of faith on their own terms since the Carter Administration and the importance of abortion (not least as a litmus test for candidates) among Catholic voters. Biden thus faces a deeply fractured religious landscape, with Catholic Washington, D.C., as exhibit A.

From a religious standpoint, Joe Biden is an heir to John F. Kennedy not as a carbon copy, though liberal instincts have informed both presidents’ outlook. The complex interdenominational concerns that Biden inherits attest to the transformative effect of Kennedy’s thousand days in office.

It is too soon to tell whether the Religious Right finds itself at a political dead end with Donald Trump’s defeat. Nor is it certain that Biden’s sincere religious feelings and desire to reach out to people of faith will reinvigorate a sometimes-languishing Religious Left. Nevertheless, we can expect the current president to alter the lines of debate nearly as much as his Catholic forebear once did. He is uniquely positioned to dispel conservative Catholics’ fears of a Democratic Party they believe to be without a moral rudder and to lay to rest the wariness of religious activism expressed by some millennials (the “nones”).

Indeed, as an honest interfaith broker in his own right, President Biden now has the opportunity to mold the place of religion in the public square in a way that engages the hopes and concerns of a country that is every day becoming more culturally diverse and socially liberal.

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is a scholar of American immigration and religious history. He has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Phillips Exeter Academy, and liberal arts colleges in eastern Canada. His research has appeared in numerous academic journals and his first scholarly book, John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, is now available from the University Press of Kansas. Dr. Lacroix currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia.