John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith

Patrick Lacroix

In John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith Patrick Lacroix explores the intersection of religion and politics in the era of Kennedy’s presidency. In doing so Lacroix challenges the established view that the postwar religious revival disappeared when President Eisenhower left office and that the contentious election of 1960, which carried John F. Kennedy to the White House, struck a definitive blow to anti-Catholic prejudice. Where most studies on the origins of the Christian right trace its emergence to the first battles of the culture wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s, echoing the Christian right’s own assertion that the “secular sixties” was a decade of waning religiosity in which faith-based groups largely eschewed political engagement, Lacroix persuasively argues for the Kennedy years as an important moment in the arc of American religious history. Lacroix analyzes the numerous ways in which faith-based engagement with politics and politicians efforts to mobilize denominational groups did not evaporate in the early 1960s. Rather, the civil rights movement, major Supreme Court rulings, events in Rome, and Kennedys own approach to recurrent religious controversy reshaped the landscape of faith and politics in the period.

Kennedy lived up to the pledge he made to the country in Houston in 1960 with a genuine commitment to the separation of church and state with his stance on aid to education, his willingness to reverse course with the Peace Corps and the Agency for International Development, and his outreach to Protestant and Jewish clergy. The remarks he offered at the National Prayer Breakfast and in countless other settings had the cumulative effect of diminishing long-standing anxieties about Catholic power. In his own way, Kennedy demanded of Protestants that they live up to their own much-vaunted commitment to church-state separation. This principle could not mean one thing for Catholics and something entirely different for other people of faith. American Protestants could not consistently oppose public funding for religious schools—because those schools were overwhelmingly Catholic—while defending religious exercises in public schools.

“John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism has often been seen as merely a surmountable barrier to election. In fact, as Patrick Lacroix capably demonstrates, Kennedy’s religious engagement supplies a missing piece to histories of American Catholicism and to dominant narratives about the decline of the religious left and rise of the religious right. Through deft use of sources, including a treasure trove of oral histories, Lacroix reveals Kennedy as a catalyst for midcentury religious realignment and a figure who demands reconsideration.”

—Elesha Coffman, author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

“As Patrick Lacroix explains with skill and grace, the ‘Catholic question’ in American politics was not put to rest with the presidential election of 1960. In John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, we learn how Kennedy’s engagement with religion on a broad range of subjects produced surprising alliances, unlikely foes, and unexpected results, all of which shaped his presidency and the political culture of the United States going forward. Lacroix has made an important contribution to our understanding of the Kennedy legacy and of the 1960s.”

—Jason K. Duncan, author of John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism

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Lacroix reveals how close the country came, during the Kennedy administration, to a satisfactory solution to the fundamental religious challenge of the postwar years—the public accommodation of pluralism—as Kennedy came to embrace a nascent “religious left” that supported his civil rights bill and the nuclear test ban treaty.

About the Author

Patrick Lacroix is an independent scholar in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Additional Titles in the Studies in US Religion, Politics, and Law Series