Taking On the Catholic Issue
Despite his best attempts to convince voters that his Catholic religion would not influence his actions as president, the issue would not go away. On September 7, 150 ministers from the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom issued a statement challenging Kennedy's ability to lead the country as a Catholic. It made the front page of the New York Times, and Kennedy campaign staff reported that voters all over the country were suspicious of the candidate's faith. Kennedy knew he would have to respond.
The Kennedy campaign received letters during the campaign expressing concerns about Kennedy's religion, and it fell to James Wine, Kennedy's special advisor on religious issues, to answer most of them. They now take up eleven boxes at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. In addition to answering letters, Wine was instrumental in appealing to Protestant leaders to oppose attacks against Kennedy's religion.
Kennedy hoped to put the issue to rest once and for all. He accepted an invitation to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12. Jack conferred with Catholic scholars John Courtney Murray and John Cogley to prepare for the speech, which he drafted with Ted Sorensen.
When Jack arrived at the televised event at the Houston Rice Hotel Crystal ballroom, he was well prepared. His speech, unwavering in its commitment to put to rest the “so-called religious issue,” showed just how badly he wanted to be president; his father's dream had become his own. Without detracting from his opponents' concerns, he calmly put matters into perspective. The religious issue was a secondary one, and it would not affect his ability to be president — “for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” Nevertheless, Kennedy continued, he realized that the public were concerned about his Catholic faith. He outlined the differences between himself as an individual and the presidency as an institution. He made it clear he was running for president as a Democrat, not as a Catholic.
It was a turning point in the campaign. Kennedy had faced a largely suspicious audience with poise and maturity, and he had articulately made a case for his place as a Catholic in high political office. The applause he received was far from thunderous, but there were no more blaring statements from Protestant ministers questioning his faith and his candidacy. The issue was closed for Kennedy himself, and he prepared to confront Richard Nixon face-to-face.