In John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith Patrick Lacroix explores the intersection of religion and politics in the era of Kennedy’s presidency. In doing so Lacroix challenges the established view that the postwar religious revival disappeared when President Eisenhower left office and that the contentious election of 1960, which carried John F. Kennedy to the White House, struck a definitive blow to anti-Catholic prejudice. Where most studies on the origins of the Christian right trace its emergence to the first battles of the culture wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s, echoing the Christian right’s own assertion that the “secular sixties” were a decade of waning religiosity in which faith-based groups largely eschewed political engagement, Lacroix persuasively argues for the Kennedy years as an important moment in the arc of American religious history. Lacroix analyzes the numerous ways in which faith-based engagement with politics and politiciansâ€™ efforts to mobilize denominational groups did not evaporate in the early 1960s. Rather, the civil rights movement, major Supreme Court rulings, events in Rome, and Kennedyâ€™s own approach to recurrent religious controversy reshaped the landscape of faith and politics in the period.
Kennedy lived up to the pledge he made to the country in Houston in 1960 with a genuine commitment to the separation of church and state with his stance on aid to education, his willingness to reverse course with the Peace Corps and the Agency for International Development, and his outreach to Protestant and Jewish clergy. The remarks he offered at the National Prayer Breakfast and in countless other settings had the cumulative effect of diminishing long-standing anxieties about Catholic power. In his own way, Kennedy demanded of Protestants that they live up to their own much-vaunted commitment to church-state separation. This principle could not mean one thing for Catholics and something entirely different for other people of faith. American Protestants could not consistently oppose public funding for religious schools—because those schools were overwhelmingly Catholic—while defending religious exercises in public schools.
Lacroix reveals how close the country came, during the Kennedy administration, to a satisfactory solution to the fundamental religious challenge of the postwar years—the public accommodation of pluralism—as Kennedy came to embrace a nascent “religious left” that supported his civil rights bill and the nuclear test ban treaty.