And the pivotal experience for me between those two wars—just as I was entering senior year in 1960—was the Democratic nomination of John F. Kennedy for president, the first Catholic who actually stood a good chance of winning the election.
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and my last name was McCarthy and I’d written a paper in history class the year before on Al Smith, the Democratic governor of New York and first Roman Catholic to run for president. I don’t recall the details of that paper, though it seemed clear from my research that it was Smith’s religion—my religion at the time—that had insured his defeat.
I don’t know if I really understood what it was about Catholics that made us such pariahs as potential presidents, though it was made clear when Kennedy gave his famous speech in the fall of 1960, in which he declared that the Pope would not influence his presidency should he win.
Here’s the introductory note to that speech:
On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church. Kennedy addressed those concerns before a skeptical audience of Protestant clergy. The following is a transcript of Kennedy's speech:
And here’s the excerpt where he addresses the Pope thing:
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
And that’s just an excerpt; the entire speech will give you goose bumps, serving as an excellent reminder of why the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state.
So there I was in 1960, 17 years old, four years away from the legal voting age at the time, with the nuns and my classmates all agog at this handsome Irish Catholic fellow running for President. And I couldn’t vote.
Recalling the excitement engendered by that election and the frustration of not being able to participate, I must have decided that as soon as I was able, I would vote. And never stop.
You can listen to and/or read JFK’s speech in its entirety here: