John F. Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 came soaked in symbols and lessons. It was the triumph of vision over experience, rich over poor, East over West, the playboy over the prig. And because a Catholic, for the first time ever, defeated a Protestant, the outcome was said to mark the burial of religious bigotry. Kennedy provided the case study for candidates ever since who have faced some version of the Religion Test. But his was an advanced course in strategy, judgment and rhetoric, and it may be harder for future candidates to pass than they realize.
The first time America searched her political soulwhen Al Smith ran for President in 1928perhaps 16% of the country was Catholic. Critics warned that if he won, he would take his orders from Rome and make Catholicism the national religion. But by 1960, the Catholic population had more than doubled, to 42 million, and urban Catholics were a dominant political force in states from Maine to California. This time, instead of the rambunctious "Happy Warrior" Smith, who had left school at 14, here was Harvard's polished son, with his chic wife and his Pulitzer Prize, a Catholic prince claiming his crown.
Kennedy wore his faith lightly; he was "casual about religious rituals and observances," his sister Eunice once said, and "a little less convinced about some things than the rest of us." But as Thomas Maier recounts in The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings, his letters home during the war suggested he was a man on a spiritual journey, if a private one. He made the effort to attend Mass even as he traveled the country during his campaigns, but he was not one to cross himself before big moments, and his close adviser Ted Sorensen says in all their years together, they never discussed his personal views of man's relation to his Creator.