He was an attractive candidate, with money, intelligence and institutional support. But no candidate of his faith had ever been elected president, and wherever he went this issue confronted him.
It got to the point that less than two months before the election, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., had to go before a room of 300 or so Protestant ministers and declare, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."
Kennedy, the first Catholic president, went through a similar experience to what his fellow Bay Stater, former Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican and a Mormon, is experiencing today.
Kennedy's Sept. 12, 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association has become such lore that Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told ABC News that when he met with Romney last year, "I told him that as far I was concerned, he needed to give a speech, he needed to 'do a JFK.'"
As Romney loses ground to former Baptist minister and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa, a state where 40 percent of the Republican voters identify themselves as born-again Christians, Romney seems indeed ready to "do a JFK."
He's even going to do it in Texas; Romney's campaign announced Sunday that on Thursday, the candidate will address the issue in a speech entitled "Faith in America" at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
But if Kennedy's experience is any guide, one speech will not put the issue to rest. Historical amnesia aside, Kennedy's speech in Houston was not his first big public attempt to address and end discussion of the issue of his faith — far from it. Nor was it the end of the matter.
Kennedy, who as a senator had opposed federal aid to parochial schools and the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, had tried to put the issue to rest as early as March 1959, when Look magazine published an interview with him strongly asserting his belief in the separation of church and state.
"Whatever one's religion in his private life may be," Kennedy said, "for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts."
That interview was so assertive Kennedy was criticized by Catholic media as overcompensating.
"He appears to have gone overboard in an effort to placate the bigots," wrote Baltimore's Catholic Review.
And yet the September 1960 speech is looked upon as the tipping point, when Kennedy may have put the issue to rest.
Land recalls that his minister attended the Greater Houston Ministerial Association speech and came back to his skeptical Baptist congregation to vouch for the Democratic nominee.
"I was 14 years old, and I lived in Houston, Texas," Land said, "and my pastor came back to our Baptist church and from the pulpit, he said: 'I have good news! President Kennedy told us that on public-policy issues, his church doesn't speak for him and he doesn't speak for his church. And that he's going to separate his Catholicism from his service if he's elected.' And people applauded all across the auditorium. They just thought it was a great thing."
Land says Kennedy "defended the right of a Catholic to run for president, and I think that's the kind of speech Romney needs to give."
Then as now, Protestant ministers have preached against the election of a man whose version of Christianity they so disapprove of. Then as now, both anonymous fliers and mass-market media focused attention on the candidate's religion, to his annoyance. Then as now, the candidate and his aides debated whether directly discussing the issue would only serve to elevate bigotry, and concluded the issue was so widespread they had no real choice.
For Romney, there are pitfalls that Kennedy did not have. The Catholic vote in the United States was and is a significant voting bloc. That voting bloc was one of the reasons Kennedy was considered a potential asset as a possible vice presidential candidate in 1956. Four years later, Kennedy's aides had made a list of 14 swing states — including New York, California and Pennsylvania — where the population of Catholic voters was disproportionately high enough to count for him rather than against him, according to Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960."
Mormons, conversely, make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, and the states where they vote in disproportionately large numbers are generally solid Republican states anyway.
Kennedy also had the added benefit in that Catholicism has been around for almost two millennia, whereas one of the main criticisms cited by skeptics of Mormonism is its relatively new nature. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Mormonism's history of polygamy, outlawed by the church in 1890, and its previous policy that black men were ineligible to be ordained as priests — rescinded in 1978 — are other reasons the Kennedy comparison may not be completely appropriate.
But there are many parallels. The issue was for Kennedy, and clearly is for Romney, an irritant.
Before the Democratic primary in Wisconsin in April 1960, Kennedy was asked whether he would attend an international summit meeting even if his bishop told him not to.
"Of course I would," Kennedy said, annoyed, as recalled in "Kennedy," by former top aide Theodore Sorensen.
In one newspaper story about his candidacy, the senator counted the word "Catholic" 20 times in only 15 paragraphs. Kennedy would become annoyed by reports that the media would ask attendees at Kennedy rally attendees their religion. "Not their occupation or education or philosophy or income," Kennedy would note, "only their religion."
It wasn't until the West Virginia Democratic primary, however, that the Kennedy campaign felt the need to address his faith.
"I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be president on the day I was baptized," he had long argued. But in West Virginia, Kennedy began to believe he needed to address how and where he was baptized.
In December 1959, Kennedy was leading Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., 70 percent to 30 percent, in polls of Democratic voters in Kanawha County, the populous West Virginia county that includes Charleston.
But by April 1960, that had flipped to 60 percent for Humphrey, 40 percent for Kennedy.
What had happened? Kennedy's campaign officials asked their West Virginia advisers.
No one in West Virginia knew you were a Catholic in December, came the reply. Now they know.
"The issue, it was clear, over and beyond anything … [the Kennedy campaign's] organizational genius could do, was religion: the differing ways men worshipped Christ in this enclave of Western civilization," wrote White. "All other issues were secondary."
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."
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."
"But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office."
Historical revisionism notwithstanding, Kennedy's speech to the Houston ministers did not settle the issue.
"No matter what Kennedy might say, he cannot separate himself from his church if he is a true Catholic," said Ramsey Pollard, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, after the speech. "All we ask is that Roman Catholicism lift its bloody hand from the throats of those that want to worship in the church of their choice."
Before Election Day, Kennedy forces counted more than 300 anti-Catholic letters sent to more than 20 million homes, not including the "countless mailings, chain letters, radio broadcasts, television attacks and even anonymous phone calls," as enumerated by Sorensen.
When, close to Election Day, Catholic clergy in Puerto Rico instructed their parishioners to vote against the incumbent governor because his "Popular Democratic Party" supported common law marriage and permitted birth control, Protestant leaders in the mainland United States pounced, using the incident to make the case that the Vatican sought to control the United States.
Many of Kennedy's aides thought the senator needed to make yet another address on the subject. Not enough voters knew about the Houston speech, they argued.
Kennedy, of course, won that election. But the lesson for Romney is clear: Those refusing to vote for him because of his faith will not vanish Thursday. And as long as they continue to feel the way they do, the media will not stop asking questions about the issue.
In addition to White's "The Making of the President 1960" and Sorensen's "Kennedy," the author also used information from Gerald and Deborah Strober's "Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency."