The president who broke the religion barrier

by Garry Wills

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By Shaun A. Casey
Published by Oxford University Press, $27.95

For those old enough to have observed the 1960 presidential campaign, this book brings ancient events out of the cellar of our memories -- things like the Bailey Memo and the Peale meeting. Both of those names are mistaken or deliberately misleading. The Bailey Memo was really the Sorensen Memo, and the Peale meeting was really a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals and a group called Protestants and Other Americans United.

What was released as the Bailey Memo was written by Theodore Sorensen in 1956, but issued by John Bailey, the legendary Connecticut political boss, to hide its close ties with John F. Kennedy. Sorensen wrote it as ammunition for the effort to get Kennedy chosen as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956. At the bidding of Kennedy’s father, Sargent Shriver took the memo to Stevenson. To overcome Stevenson’s misgivings about running with a Catholic, Sorensen argued that in key states necessary for the Democrats to win in 1956, the Catholic vote would actually be an advantage, not a disadvantage. The argument did not prevail with Stevenson in 1956, but it was leaked to the press to launch Kennedy’s own run for president in 1960.

Perhaps others shared my impression of Sorensen as merely the polisher of Kennedy’s rhetoric, the ghost- writer for his book and speeches. But Casey makes it clear that Sorensen was a master strategist who outmaneuvered the anti-Catholic prejudices deployed against Kennedy. As a Protestant himself (Unitarian), he knew what Protestants could be wooed and how to blunt attacks from the intransigent. He convinced Kennedy that he did not need to fear the Protestants. He not only wrote the famous Houston speech, but elicited apparent approval from John Courtney Murray, a favorite of the Henry Luce publications and the Center for the Study of Democracy.

Of course, Kennedy had his own Catholic advisers, especially Bishop (later Cardinal) John Wright, who had been a friend of the Kennedys from his days in Boston before going to the Pittsburgh diocese. Wright brought Kennedy together with Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam and other Protestants (even with the harshly anti-Catholic writer Paul Blanshard). Sorensen eventually sent some Kennedy statements on church and state to Blanshard to get his criticisms.

Kennedy’s opponent, Richard Nixon, had his own Sorensen, the Sulpician priest John Cronin, who wrote Nixon’s enlightened speeches on racial justice. Cronin, a “labor priest” who had fought communist influence in the unions, teamed up with Sen. Nixon during the Alger Hiss case. Casey affects not to know what material Cronin gave Nixon at that time, but it is general knowledge that Cronin channeled information from FBI agent Ed Hummer. When Nixon became vice president, Cronin not only wrote speeches for him but guided him about in Catholic circles, getting him invited to events like an anniversary dinner for America magazine.

While Nixon worked on Catholic outreach with Cronin, he had allies secretly stirring up Protestant resistance to Kennedy. He said publicly that he would not make religion an issue in the election, but he had friends organizing evangelical and other ministers to make religion the overriding concern. A principal agent in this activity was Orland K. Armstrong, who worked closely with Protestants and Other Americans United and others to revive old fears of Rome. Billy Graham deliberately stayed in Europe so he would not be drawn into electoral controversies, but he held a summit meeting in Switzerland of eminences from the National Association of Evangelicals and from Protestants and Other Americans United to plan a larger meeting of Protestant leaders to be held in Washington, D.C., where Norman Vincent Peale would be the nominal convener and spokesperson.

The Peale meeting was held behind closed doors, to form an umbrella group called Citizens for Religious Freedom. Publicly Peale claimed that it was not an anti-Kennedy meeting, but two enterprising journalists hid themselves where they could hear the speakers and their plans to raise money for attacks on Kennedy. At the end of the meeting, Peale held a news conference in which he misrepresented what had gone on.

When the reporters published their own accounts -- Bonnie Angelo in Newsday and John Lindsay in The Washington Post -- Peale was publicly humiliated. Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett, professors at Union Theological Seminary, accused Peale of “blind prejudice” against Kennedy. John Courtney Murray published an op-ed piece in The New York Times denouncing anti-Catholic animus. Nixon disavowed the meeting on “Meet the Press,” and Peale resigned his pulpit at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, N.Y. (though his board refused to accept the resignation). Peale resented Graham, who had urged him to attend the meeting, for not defending him.

Casey, who teaches Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, has done diligent work in the Nixon and Kennedy libraries. He quotes internal memos from both campaigns (sometimes at too great length), but the book is short on analysis. He notes that Murray was a Republican who voted for Eisenhower, but he does not tell us that Murray profoundly disagreed with Kennedy’s Houston speech. Kennedy professed himself a believer in the absolute separation of church and state, a concept Murray rejected when he called James Madison’s defense of it “an irredeemable piece of sectarian dogmatism.”

Casey’s rather bloodless account of the election has none of the heat, humor or personality of the campaign as I recall it.

Since Casey was an adviser on religious matters to the Obama presidential campaign, it is odd that he does not draw lessons from 1960 to discuss another breakthrough candidate overcoming old prejudices, this time racial rather than religious. Some interesting comparisons could be made.

It was argued, for instance, that Obama was either not black enough or too black for white Americans. In the same way, it was argued that Kennedy was either not Catholic enough or too Catholic for Protestant America. Casey does not quote Jacqueline Kennedy’s remark that she did not see why people made so much of her husband’s religion when he made so little of it.

Murray Kempton put the matter more sharply after Kennedy won. He wrote, “We have again been cheated of the prospect of a Catholic president.” Eugene McCarthy agreed with that judgment.

Kennedy worked for four years to overcome anti-Catholic sentiment. Obama was not even on the national scene four years before his presidential race. Yet in a comparatively short time he broke free from old stereotypes.

Does this suggest that other barriers will fall more easily than was the case in 1960? Can we expect, before long, to see the first Jewish president, the first Mormon, the first woman, even the first atheist? That may be hoping too much, but 1960 proved that barriers can be crossed, and in the process we become America.

Garry Wills is emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University in Illinois. He is author of over 40 books.

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