When John F. Kennedy was elected president, he made history as the first — and so far, only — Catholic to do so.
“There was a lot of great concern around the country,” said Bishop Edmond Carmody, vicar general of the Diocese of Tyler. “People were afraid Rome would dominate the country.”
New Chapel Hill native Linda Cross, 67, remembers her husband’s grandfather’s fear about the spread of Roman Catholicism.
“He would sit on the back of his pickup and talk about Roman Catholicism and how it was going to take over the country. He’d always get started on it, and you just had to be polite,” she said. “He was Baptist. People felt that their religion was the best one. I guess people still feel that way.”
Carmody, 79, remembers the turning point of people’s fear of Kennedy’s Catholicism. On Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, defending his beliefs on the separation of church and state.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him,” Kennedy said. “For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
Although Kennedy stated in his speech that there were more pressing issues facing the country, such as the spread of Communism and American poverty, the assurances were appreciated.
“The speech made a huge difference for non-Catholics,” Carmody said.
As a young priest from Ireland who was serving in San Antonio at the time, Carmody remembers “being up all night and pacing back and forth” on the night of Kennedy’s election.
“Kennedy was a very exciting leader and a great speaker; he attracted huge crowds,” Carmody said.