John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview

19
Southern Baptists and the Issue of Catholic Autonomy in the 1960 Presidential Campaign

T. David Lisle

The presidential candidacy of Senator John F. Kennedy raised an issue that had lain dormant in American politics since 1928: should a Roman Catholic be allowed to occupy the White House? Although Protestant opinion was sharply divided, many "evangelicals" were apprehensive about such an eventuality. The most prominent spokespersons for this school of thought appeared to be the Southern Baptists, whose emphasis on confederation and congregational autonomy seemed the direct antithesis of the structure and hierarchy of Roman Catholicism. 1

Baptist fears sprang from two primary assumptions. The first was that the Catholic Church might use the elevation of one of its members to the presidency as the rationale for an attack on the separation of church and state. The second assumption, the one with which this chapter is concerned, was that a Catholic president--regardless of the purity of his intentions--would prove inherently susceptible to clerical pressure and that the resulting division of loyalty could work against the national interest.

The debate occurred primarily through the medium of the Baptist press, each state convention having its own weekly newspaper. The discussion, while spirited, was conducted mostly on the plane of civility in keeping with the burgeoning religious dialogue of the mid- and late 1950s. 2 The decision to restrict discussion to the former Confederate states implies no value judgment. Rather, these states provide a convenient frame of reference, while representing the ideas of Baptist spokespersons in general. 3

Even before Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on the second day of 1960, disturbing reports had circulated concerning his conduct in a matter that took place during his years in Congress--the "Chapel of the Four Chaplains" incident. The chaplains--two Protestants, a Catholic, and a Jew--served in

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