Media Spotlight: Making of a Catholic President

by Editorial

A discussion on Shaun Casey’s new book “The Making of a Catholic President”

by Sarah Khan

Shaun Casey, John Seigenthaler and Sander Vanocur discussing "The Making of a Catholic President" with moderator Charles C. Haynes. (Photo by Sarah Khan).

The Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum hosted a discussion of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign on March 8 at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center. Moderator Charles C. Haynes initiated the discussion between panelists Shaun Casey, author of The Making of a Catholic President, journalist John Seigenthaler, an assistant to Robert Kennedy during the 1960 campaign and award-winning network television journalist Sander Vanocur who reported on the 1960 campaign and was among the panelists who posed questions in the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates.

The discussion focused on the role of religion in the 1960 campaign and the subsequent election victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon – one of the closest in U.S. political history – that brought the first Catholic to the White House as president. The panelists also drew comparisons between the 1960 campaign with that of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which Obama’s Muslim family connections remained at the forefront of every debate.

Casey talked about his varying methods of getting access to papers at the Kennedy Library in Boston through which he was able to disclose how the Kennedy campaign transformed the “religion question” from a liability into an asset. Drawing on similarities between the 1960 and 2008 campaigns with regard to religion, Casey pointed out three core issues: Weaponization of religion – making religion a weakness for the presidential candidate, sophisticated opponents and technical rationality. He firmly admitted that Obama’s opponent John McCain did not tap into anti-Muslim sentiment or the Jeremiah Wright, issue as Nixon campaign did to benefit from the anti-Catholic sentiment which left Kennedy’s advisers tackle staunch opposition to the candidate’s Catholicism.

Seigenthaler and Vanocur pointed out why religion has mattered in electing a U.S. president. They both agreed that Kennedy’s meeting with 150 protestant ministers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. and his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in Houston in September 1960 won him the election. Through these addresses he was able to put down the notion prevalent in many leading protestant minds that the Catholic Church opposed religious pluralism and the separation of Church and the state, which directly opposes the basis of freedom and the first amendment in the U.S. constitution. The panelists talked about how, similarly, Obama addressed the religion issue at the “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in March 2008. All three panelists agreed that Kennedy’s Houston speech and Obama’s Philadelphia speech were conducted out of political fear.

One questioner from the audience informed the panelists about how religion played a key role in the handling of the Vietnam War by the Kennedy administration, which the panelists said they had no knowledge of. Asked whether blogs and tweets would have had any impact if the 1960 campaign took place today, the panelists said it would not have been possible to run that kind of a campaign in today’s faced-paced world where information travels not 24/7 but second by second.

The discussion ended on how Robert Kennedy did not have to address the race issue during his 1968 presidential campaign as he was a completely transformed man after his brother’s assassination and religion was not on his mind during that time. The panelists concluded that the American political landscape has changed significantly since the ’60s as recent presidential candidates like John Kerry and Joe Biden faced no opposition due to their Catholic beliefs.

At the end of the discussion, Casey signed books for the visitors.

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