Not all Catholics venerated (or voted for) JFK

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
(AFP/Getty Images)

“All analogies limp,” a wise man once said. So it is with the comparison between John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected president, and Barack Obama, the first black president. In both cases the Democratic nominee overcame historic prejudices with overwhelming support from his own group – Catholics for Kennedy, African Americans for Obama. In both cases members of groups that had endured discrimination were galvanized to vote for “one of us.”

So the analogy is valid. But let’s talk about the limp.

First, while both candidates benefited from bloc voting, Catholics were much less monolithic in supporting JFK than blacks were in backing Obama. Estimates of the percentage of the Catholic vote for Kennedy range from 70% to 83%. Estimates of the black vote for Obama -- more accurate because of refinements in exit polling -- suggest that he won 95% or 96% of the black vote in 2008 and 93% in 2013.

This gap can be easily explained. While discrimination against Catholics was real, it was never as invidious or as institutionalized as white racism. Many Catholics who voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 switched over to JFK in 1960. But not all of them. For some Catholic Republicans, party trumped faith.


Though he never told me as much, I’m reasonably sure that my father voted for Richard Nixon in 1960. For one thing, he came from a Republican family. (Grandmother McGough was a minor party functionary who told my Democratic mother that she would have to turn Republican when she married into the family.)

Then there was Dad’s behavior after JFK was killed. As I recounted in my obligatory column about my Kennedy memories:

“I comforted my Grandmother Murray, a JFK votary who had an apartment in our house, and felt her pain when my father, a Republican and a wiseacre, mocked the mawkishness of many of the tributes to the president. Dad was especially scathing about the eulogy delivered at a Capitol Hill service by Sen. Mike Mansfield.

“Mansfield, a usually plainspeaking Montanan, had decided to wax poetic in his remarks, taking as his motif the fact that at Parkland Hospital Jacqueline Kennedy had taken a ring from her finger and placed it in her fallen husband’s hand.

“Thus was born the Ring Refrain. ‘And so she took the ring from her finger,’ Mansfield said again and again, ‘and placed it in his hand.’

“And my father said: ‘I’d like to take my fist and place it in his mouth.’ ”


Dad’s distaste for a Democrat who shared his religion turned out to be prophetic. The next time the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic for president, the ties between Catholic politicians and Catholic voters had frayed. In 2004 John Kerry received only 47% of votes cast by Catholics compared to 52% for the Episcopalian-turned-Methodist George W. Bush.


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