Kennedy Seeks to Censure a Priest for “Attempting to Make a Religious War out of a School Election”
Click to enlarge:
Select an image:
Massachusetts Congressman John F. Kennedy makes a powerful statement about the place of religion, specifically his own Catholicism, in politics. Here he criticizes a priest in western Massachusetts for using religion as a political wedge in a local school election, reminding Catholics, who tended to vote Democratic, of the difficulties faced by Al Smith, a Catholic, in his presidential campaign in 1928. “I think that the priest up there should be reprimanded by the Bishop for attempting to make a religious war out of a school election. And then they complain about Al Smith’s treatment.” JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY.
Autograph Letter Signed as Congressman, to John Mahanna. On stationery “aboard United Air Lines.” Postmarked with 3¢ stamp at O’Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, November 6, [1952?]. 2 pp., recto and verso, with envelope addressed by Kennedy.
Many thanks for your letter and for the help in covering my visit. As you said, I got several letters about the Wheelwright dinner. I think that the priest up there should be reprimanded by the Bishop for attempting to make a religious war out of a school election. And then they complain about Al Smith’s treatment. 
Bob Johnson told me Daughy (?) was ill and I had planned to call him and hope he recovered quickly. To say I was going to call headquarters to talk to the ladies is wholly untrue—I would be glad if you told him so.
I shall try and get up this summer if Congress gets out in time. My best to Emma – I shall look forward to seeing you both soon.
[envelope addressed by Kennedy:] John Mahanna / The Berkshire Eagle / Pittsfield / Massachus[et]ts
Writing to a newspaper editor in Pittsfield, Congressman John F. Kennedy begins to frame the progressive, secular conception of church and state that helped make him a viable presidential candidate in 1960. He astutely frames the issue in historical context, stating that it was hypocritical for Catholics to “complain about Al Smith’s treatment” as the first major Catholic presidential candidate in 1928, and then to explicitly invoke religion for or against a local candidate or cause.
On a purely political level, Kennedy's handling of the issue of religion in the 1960 presidential election would be masterful. His own affirmative statements on church-state separation contrasted favorably with ill-timed statements of the Catholic clergy in both Rome and Puerto Rico, and the chorus of wholesale condemnations issued by several American evangelical leaders. His primary victory in predominantly Protestant West Virginia, and his September 12, 1960, speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, were decisive moments in Kennedy’s drive to the presidency. As Kennedy so aptly explained in Houston, he was “not the Catholic candidate for President.” He was “the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” His vision was inspiring, but rooted in constitutional principle. In the Houston speech, he said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.” His words were reassuring to the vast majority of Americans who were Protestant in a time when religious prejudice was still part of mainstream discourse. In 1949, Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power, which accused the Church of being anti-democratic and un-American, was a national bestseller.
Kennedy went on to defeat Republican Richard Nixon to win the presidency in 1960 by the margin of a hairsbreadth, winning the popular vote by 120,000 out of 69 million votes cast.
John F. Kennedy, speech, “I believe in an American Where the Separation of
Church and State is Absolute,” http://www.beliefnet.com/story/40/story_4080_1.html.
Some underscoring in red ink on recto and bleeding through to verso.