In July, Kennedy addressed the issue at his nominating convention, saying that the party "had placed its confidence in the American people and in their ability to render a free, fair judgment — and in my ability to render a free, fair judgment."
In September, the Southern Baptist Convention unanimously passed a resolution voicing doubts that any Catholic should be president.
And even more notoriously, a group calling itself the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom in September 1960 — led by high-profile Protestant ministers such as Norman Vincent Peale — wrote an open letter that received a great deal of attention asserting that a Catholic president would be under "extreme pressure from the hierarchy of his church" to comport U.S. policy with the views of the Vatican.
It was only then that Kennedy decided — with great reluctance — to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association at the Rice Hotel. His annoyance at having to continue to address the issue of his faith was evident.
"We have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election," Kennedy told the crowd. "The spread of Communist influence … the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms, an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space — these are the real issues which should decide this campaign."
"But," he told the roughly 300 ministers and 300 other observers, "because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately — in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in."
After the speech, the Houston ministers asked probing questions, many of which dealt with Kennedy's refusal in 1948 to attend the consecration of an interfaith chapel in Philadelphia, an invitation extended by the Rev. Daniel Poling, a losing GOP candidate for mayor. Kennedy explained that he didn't attend because he realized he'd been invited as a spokesman for the Roman Catholic faith, a role he wasn't comfortable serving in.
"Is this the best that … can be charged after 14 years?" Kennedy asked.
He was asked about the persecution of Protestant ministers in Catholic nations in South America. He was asked whether he would urge Boston Cardinal Cushing to urge the Vatican to endorse the separation of church and state. He was asked what he would do if the Catholic Church tried to tell him what to do.
Kennedy attempted to allay the ministers' fears, to insist the Vatican would play no role.
"Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates," he said. "And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."