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But neither Nixon nor Kennedy was in a position to control the religious debate. It was during the West Virginia primary that Kennedy refined his lines and his strategy: make the issue not religion but tolerance. Those who were undecided between the candidates could at least show they were not bigots by voting for Kennedy. The state was 95% Protestant; Kennedy's chief rival, Hubert Humphrey, was running at least 20 points ahead, and newspaper polls found that half his support was based purely on religion. Kennedy's local advisers said he had to hit the issue squarely, and his pollster Lou Harris agreed, but his Washington team feared the whole topic was too explosive.
Kennedy decided he needed to move. On the Sunday night just before the vote, he paid for a half-hour TV special. The candidate reminded viewers of what a bold break with history it had been when the founders knit religious pluralism into the fabric of the state. And then he looked straight at the camera and observed that when Presidents place their hand on the Bible to swear their oath of office, they are swearing to support the constitutional separation of church and state. Kennedy raised his hand as if from an imaginary Bible. If a President breaks his oath, Kennedy declared, "he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach himand should impeach himbut he is committing a sin against God." The reporters could feel the winds shift. Theodore White, in his account of the race, tells of pollster Harris going back to a Kennedy opponent after the telecast: "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.'"
But Kennedy's opponents were not idle. Having simmered through the summer, the holy war erupted in September when a group of some 150 prominent conservative Protestant clergy and laymen calling themselves the Citizens for Religious Freedom gathered at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, holding what amounted to an anti-Kennedy rally. Though he'd had nothing to do with organizing the meeting, Norman Vincent Peale, among the pre-eminent Protestant leaders of the day, presided and acted as spokesman. "Our American culture is at stake," he told the assembled ministers. "I don't say it won't survive, but it won't be what it was."
The group issued a 2,000-word manifesto suggesting that no Catholic President could truly be free of Vatican control. "It is inconceivable," said the statement, "that a Roman Catholic President would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign relations... and otherwise breach the wall of separation of church and state." Though the meeting was roundly denounced as a carnival of bigotry and outrageous presumption, it was also, for Kennedy, an opportunity. The campaign had been debating another direct attempt to address the issue. Most advisers wanted to wait until closer to the election. But the Peale eruption had forced their hand, and Kennedy immediately accepted an invitation into the lion's den. He agreed to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, and it was there that he gave the speech that echoes like a great bell to this day.