Told by West Virginia campaign aides that Democratic voters actually feared Catholics — a sentiment supported by Kennedy pollster Lou Harris — Kennedy tried to take the issue head-on.
"If religion is a valid issue in the presidential campaign," he told one West Virginia audience after the state's Episcopal bishop stated his opposition to a Catholic president, "I shouldn't have served in the House, I shouldn't now be serving in the president, and" — added the World War II hero, cleverly — "I shouldn't have been accepted by the U.S. Navy."
Kennedy changed the subject of an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors from foreign aid to religion.
"There is only one legitimate question: Would you, as president, be responsive in any way to ecclesiastical pressures or obligations of any kind that might in any fashion influence or interfere with your conduct of that office in the national interest?" Kennedy said at the gathering on April 21, 1960. "My answer was and is: no."
"I am not the Catholic candidate for president," Kennedy said. "I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that church speaks for me."
This speech did not go over as well as Kennedy had hoped, however. Despite the fact that many editors present had published anti-Catholic articles and Op-Eds, and would continue to do so, not one of them took the opportunity to ask Kennedy any questions.
Right before the West Virginia primary, on Sunday evening, May 8, Kennedy appeared in a half hour of purchased television time in the state for a Q&A to be hosted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., where Kennedy "answered fully and fervently," Sorensen later wrote, "the toughest religious questions I could devise for Frank to ask."
"I would not take orders from any pope, cardinal, bishop or priest," Kennedy said, as recalled by Sorensen, "nor would they try to give me orders. If any pope attempted to influence me as president, I would have to tell him it was completely improper."
Kennedy looked right at the camera, addressing West Virginians directly, remembered White, saying that "when any man stands on the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office of president, he is swearing to support the separation of church and state; he puts one hand on the Bible and raises the other hand to God as he takes the oath. And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him — and should impeach him — but he is committing a sin against God."
Pollster Lou Harris would later recall that May 1960 televised address had an effect on the nasty anti-Catholic women of the state.
"You could see them switch," he said. "I remember going back to one particular one the Monday before the election, after the TV speech on religion, and she took me in, pulled down the blinds and said she was going to vote for Kennedy now. 'We have enough trouble in West Virginia, let alone to be called bigots, too.'"
Kennedy won the West Virginia primary over Humphrey, 61 percent to 39 percent, and went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But even then, the issue of his faith had not been laid to rest.
Nor were all the concerns from where one might expect. As Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., once recalled, Martin Luther King, Jr. had concerns about Kennedy, perhaps "because he was a Catholic, Daddy King being a devoted Baptist."