(2 of 4)
Kennedy knew, however, from his very first campaign for Congress in 1946, how useful his faith could be to his politics. At the time, Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing, who called J.F.K. his best friend, went so far as to let him recite the rosary with him on the radio. A few months before the election, Maier recounts, the Boston Pilot ran a picture of Kennedy and his mother handing Cushing a $600,000 check to build a new Catholic facility for mentally handicapped children. Separating church and state would have been an insane political strategy for a candidate running in a 76% Catholic town.
But a White House race was an entirely different challenge. It is hard from the distance of nearly 50 years to remember the kind of alarm that the prospect of a Catholic President raised. Overt prejudice was beginning to fade, but the message came discreetly from Protestant pulpits and in pamphlets handed out after church. Preachers talked of "preserving our precious heritage of freedom," and the congregation didn't need a translation. Eleanor Roosevelt publicly doubted whether Kennedy could keep church and state separate. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention declared that he was not being a bigot when he said, "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."
Kennedy faced, essentially, a series of calculations involving hope and history, faith and fear, and just plain geography. He had come within a shiver of the vice presidential nomination as a freshman Senator in 1956, largely on the strength of a memo, ghostwritten by Sorensen, that showed as many as 14 states could swing to the Democrats on the strength of a mobilized Catholic vote. By 1960, the math hadn't changed, and Nixon, for one, knew it. He told his close advisers that he thought Kennedy's faith would hurt him only in states he wasn't going to win anyway and would help in the swing states he needed. So he issued pointed instructions that Republicans were to stay away from the issue altogether: it was dangerous, volatile. "There is only one way I can visualize religion being a legitimate issue in an American political campaign," Nixon said. "That would be if one of the candidates for the presidency had no religious belief."