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  • A Non-Issue: Barry Goldwater and the Absence of Religion in the Election of 1964
  • Vincent J. Cannato (bio)

In September 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to speak before a large audience of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy’s campaign could not escape accusations that the Catholic candidate was unfit for office because of his religious affiliation. Many liberal, mainline Protestants thought the Catholic Church was a reactionary organization fundamentally opposed to liberalism, democracy, and individual liberty.

In his speech, Kennedy proclaimed his belief in the “absolute” separation of church and state. “I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy assured his audience, “and the church does not speak for me.” Whatever issues may come up if he were elected president, Kennedy proclaimed that he would follow his conscience “without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate.” In a question-and-answer session after the speech, Kennedy engaged the sometimes-hostile questioning of Protestant ministers in good faith.1 [End Page 109]

It was a successful performance and although many Protestants were not entirely convinced by Kennedy’s speech, he satisfied enough voters with both his words and his bravery in facing the hostile group of ministers that he partially neutralized the religious issue in the campaign. In fact, Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent, now had to answer charges that his Protestant supporters were engaged in religious bigotry against the Catholic Kennedy, although historian Irwin Gellman argues that Nixon very clearly abstained from using the religious issue against Kennedy.2

As important as Kennedy’s speech was, it clouded a deeper irony: the precedent-setting presidency of John F. Kennedy, overcoming more than a century of Protestant skepticism toward, and even bigotry against, Catholics, was accompanied by a drive toward a secular vision of American politics. To safeguard his political success, Kennedy had to play down not only his suspected allegiance to the Vatican but also the church’s views on birth control, federal aid to parochial education, and the constitutionality of an American ambassador to the Vatican; he had to minimize the role that religion played in the nation’s civic and political culture. The speech was less a defense of the right of a Catholic to hold office in America, and more of a call toward a secularized vision of politics where religious views were safely circumscribed within the personal sphere.3

This was all the more remarkable considering the history of the previous fifteen years. In recent years, scholars have shown how deeply embedded religious themes were in the Cold War rhetoric of Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower (as well as in FDR’s defense of American involvement in World War Two) and in the broader civic culture of the earlier Cold War period. In 1954, the sociologist Will Herberg gave a speech titled, “The Biblical Basis of American Democracy,” in which he argued that “the conflict between Soviet Communism and the free world is a religious conflict . . . a struggle for the soul of modern man.” 4 Historian [End Page 110] Jonathan Herzog calls this trend the “spiritual-industrial complex,” playing off Eisenhower’s more famous denunciation of the “military-industrial complex.” 5

This trend toward the “sacralization” of the Cold War took place within a context of increased religious fervor and church attendance during this period. The 1920s and 1930s has been characterized as the “American Religious Depression,” especially among Protestants. But after World War Two, America saw a religious revival. Church membership rose from 49 percent in 1949 to almost 70 percent by 1960. Among American Catholics, weekly church attendance had reached a high of 75 percent in 1955. Whether it was a reaction to the horrors and dislocations of World War Two or a source of comfort amid an age of nuclear anxiety, Americans flocked to religion in large numbers.6

Such a revival can be seen throughout postwar American society. Dwight Eisenhower would become the first president to be baptized in office. The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, the motto “In God We Trust” was put back on the nation’s currency in 1955, and...


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pp. 109-125
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