By Mannix Porterfield
Dropped anonymously on front porches under the cover of night, flyers warned that if John F. Kennedy won the White House, expect a bloodbath directed against Protestants by the pope himself.
The Knights of Columbus, insisted the leaflets, was a secret, clandestine organization bent on wiping out Protestants and acting, in fact, as the pope’s personal militia in a papal jihad.
Guns were stored in the basement of Roman Catholic churches, other warnings held.
Not all such messages were engineered to ignite fear back in 1960, the year Kennedy came to the hills of West Virginia to prove a Catholic could win in a state where his brand of Christianity counted a mere 5 percent of the population.
There were efforts at making a joke out of the whole thing.
Example: What is the one word Kennedy will telegraph to the pope if he beats Richard Nixon in the fall?
And another that made the rounds was that a Kennedy victory would lead to a change in the currency motto — from “In God We Trust” to “In The Pope We Hope.”
For all the verbiage heaped on that historic showdown between Kennedy and a fellow senator, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan says the religious issue was “exaggerated” by the national media.
In fact, professor Robert Rupp says, when the boyishly handsome Kennedy swept into the mountains out of Massachusetts, the real issue of the day was the economy.
America had been stung by a recession two years earlier and West Virginia found itself particularly damaged, with coal and steel production suffering. The jobless rate was the highest in the nation, and lame-duck President Dwight Eisenhower incurred the wrath of many mired in the deepening recession.
Boarded-up windows in vacated business structures were dubbed “Eisenhower Curtains.”
Yet for all of the misery prevalent in the Mountain State five decades ago, the national media riveted its attention almost exclusively on where Kennedy worshipped.
“It’s obvious that it was exaggerated in terms of the degree of prejudice in the state,” Rupp said in an interview.
“Facts don’t matter. Perceptions. You could make the point that the national press made this into a religious referendum. The way a lot of the newspapers reported it, that was the only angle.”
Rupp pointed to the coverage of a New York Times political correspondent, Bill Lawrence, that implied “a bigot behind every bush” in West Virginia.
Each time he covered a speech by the two Democratic heavyweights, Rupp says, the correspondent “went out and found some bigot that said, ‘I’m not gong to vote some Catholic.’ It was almost bordering on a joke.”
More fuel was thrown on the fire when the late humorist Jim Comstock, editor of The Hillbilly, produced a satirical account on the front page of his publication with the headline, “Pa Ain’t Voting For No Catholic.” And the story contained this line, “If a Catholic comes to the White House, Pa says it will have holy water.”
To anyone familiar with Comstock and his novel sense of humor, the article’s intent was obvious — a funny look at the primary.
Yet, the outside media weren’t laughing, Rupp noted, and two national newspapers actually reported Comstock’s story as fact.
The media drew its own conclusions after Kennedy secured the Wisconsin primary, reporting he won in congressional districts where Catholics were in the majority, losing the predominantly Protestant ones.
Rupp says Kennedy was incensed over that kind of reporting, pointing out the word “Catholic” appeared in 15 of the 20 paragraphs in one account.
Then came the big test — can Kennedy win a state where fellow Catholics number only 5 percent of the population?
“All you see is religion, religion, religion,” Rupp said of the national media’s focus as reporters huddled at the old Daniel Boone Hotel in Charleston.
“They focused on the 5 percent Catholic. What they didn’t focus on was the fact that doesn’t mean 95 percent were Protestant. In fact, we had a very high ratio of non-churchgoers.”
In one follow-up, Comstock reported about half the population claimed no church affiliation, period.
Rupp finds it interesting that if Kennedy hadn’t been a Catholic, the senator would have been viewed as “a millionaire, Bostonian with a Harvard education.”
Kennedy, in fact, used his Catholicism to his advantage, telling West Virginia voters it wouldn’t be fair to vote against him on the basis of his faith, implanting the idea in their minds that the only way to dispel the stereotype image of a bigot was to vote for him.
“Kennedy was smart enough, one, to confront it, and two, to frame it into service for his country,” the Wesleyan professor said.
“It wasn’t Kennedy the Catholic. It was Kennedy the decorated war veteran.”
Kennedy put the religious concerns aside and directed his attention on promises to help West Virginia rebound from the economic woes with jobs and food — pocketbook issues that, as one observer noted, outweighed religious fears in the polling booths.
“Boys,” one Kennedy aide mused, “when you don’t have enough food to eat, you don’t care about a man’s religion.”
Yet in other circles, the idea of a Catholic president wasn’t a concern limited to the backwash of West Virginia. A number of leading clergy voiced apprehensions that Kennedy would base policy on his church, perhaps moving to dump money into parochial schools.
Some ministers openly cautioned their flocks not to vote for Kennedy because of his religion. As the fall election returns put Kennedy past Nixon, the head of a New Jersey seminary drew children into a circle and lamented, “This is the end of the world.”
During the campaign, the Kennedy entourage distanced the senator from any Catholic trappings. There is the account of a lunch hosted by eventual first lady Jackie Kennedy when in strolled an Episcopalian minister wearing a cleric’s collar, too close for comfort.
“The Kennedy people freaked out,” Rupp said. “They thought he was a priest. There were never any pictures of Kennedy going to Mass.”
Two years ago, the two candidates for governor were Roman Catholics — incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican challenger Russ Weeks of Beckley. No one seemed to notice, or care, where the two men worshiped.
Manchin is hosting a celebration today of Kennedy’s landmark triumph with a daylong observance at the West Virginia Culture Center, keynoted by an address by Theodore Sorensen, the president’s top aide, speechwriter, confidante and biographer. The event is free.
“I have very fond memories of the Kennedy family campaigning in West Virginia, as I am sure many of our residents do,” the governor said.
“Kennedy’s primary win in the Mountain State was the turning point in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the presidency and changed American presidential politics by undermining the conventional wisdom that a Catholic could not win the presidency.”
Another speaker lined up for the 50-year anniversary will be former pro footballer Sam Huff, the son a coal miner who had warned his son not to introduce Kennedy at a campaign stop. Huff ignored his father’s advice.
Rupp, himself then an Ohioan, recalled his grandmother expressing fear of a Catholic uprising, telling him, “They have guns stored in the basement of the Catholic church.”
Rupp still faults the national press for exciting the electorate over an issue that paled alongside a failing economy.
“They didn’t do their research,” he says.
“They played up the stereotypes. Religion was not as important issue to us as the food, the jobs.”
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