Across the American political landscape, the hot light flickered like the glow of revivalist campfires. The religious issue in the '60 Presidential campaign simply could not be snuffed out. For every statement intended to douse it, another set the blaze flaring again. The burning topic was on the lips of past and present occupants of the White House, and preoccupied both men who hope to be the next tenant; it was tossed back and forth by leaders of the nation's religious thought—some of whom has now become embroiled in politics.
Political figures, generally, took the approach that it was a pity to inject the religious issue; but the other fellows were doing it. Former President Truman hurled these bitter words at Republican nominee Richard Nixon: "While he stands at the front door proclaiming charity and tolerance, his supporters are herding the forces of racial, religious, and anti-union bigotry in by way of the back door." He had no doubt, Mr. Truman added, that Nixon knows "what is going on."
The GOP reply came, not from Nixon (who thought cold silence on his part more effective) but from President Eisenhower who told his press conference: "Mr. Nixon and I agreed long ago that one thing we would never raise, and never mention is the religious issue … Now, the very need, apparently, for protesting innocence in this regard … seems to exacerbate the situation rather than to quiet it … I would hope that [the subject] could be laid on the shelf and forgotten until after the election …"
Almost as the President spoke, new "exacerbation" suddenly appeared in the form of a statement from 150 Protestant ministers and laymen headed by two of the best-known names in churchdom: The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, best-selling inspiration author ("The Power of Positive Thinking"), and Dr. Daniel Poling, editor of The Christian Herald and syndicated columnist. "It is inconceivable," declared this group, representing 37 denominations, "that a Roman Catholic President would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign relations.
Rebuttal: From another big name in Protestant churchdom came a sharp retort. "Dr. Peale and his associates … show blind prejudice," said Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, vice chairman of New York's pro-Kennedy Liberal Party. And Dr. John C. Bennett, dean of Union Theological Seminary, joined Dr. Niebuhr, calling religious opposition to Kennedy "a kind of Protestant underground."
With unintentional timing, one more powerful Protestant voice was raised. The Presbyterian Outlook, the unofficial but accepted organ of 4 million members of that denomination, came out with a fervent editorial calling upon Americans to choose "the best available leader, whether he be, in this case, Quaker [Nixon's faith] or Roman Catholic."
Catholic John Kennedy himself reiterated his position more forcefully than ever. "The Constitution," he told a press conference in Burbank, "is very clear on the separation of church and state. I have been clear and precise in my commitments to that Constitution, not merely because I take the oath which is taken to God, but also because I believe that it represents the happiest arrangement for the organization of a society. Therefore I believe in that theory … just as strongly as Dr. Peale of anyone else."
Democratic professionals had been braced for the impact of the religious issue, not only on the Presidential race but clear across the board. Their only worry was its extent. But Republican pros were becoming increasingly alarmed over the possibility of a double boomerang: Catholic Republicans and independents might be so stung by slurs on their faith that they would feel compelled to vote for Kennedy; voters of either party of of any faith might be so angered by attacks on a fellow American's personal belief that they would vote for him in simple protest. Thus it could be that anti-anti-Catholicism would swing the nation's course on Election Day.
Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy answered questions from NEWSWEEK
To what extent do you believe the religious issue may influence the results of the election? You frequently have expressed your opposition to raising the religious issue. What about the activities of supporters of yours like the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and the Rev. Dr. Daniel Poling?
Richard Nixon: I regret even the asking of this question. Senator Kennedy and I are in agreement, I understand, that this matter has no place whatsoever in this campaign and that, in an attempt to keep it out, neither he nor I would comment further about it. I will continue doing my best to abide by this and can only assume he will do likewise.
To what extent do you believe the religious issue may influence the results of the election? Do you agree with Sen. Henry Jackson that, although Vice President Nixon keeps saying he doesn't want religion discussed, others with the Republican Party are pushing the issue?
John F. Kennedy: I hope that religion will not have any effect upon the election. The constitutional provision that there shall be "no religious test for office" is wise, and I am hopeful that the American people will agree. As to the next part of the question, I would agree that the leaders of the Republican Party have indicated that they did not want religion discussed. I have no personal knowledge concerning the activities of others in the Republican Party on this issue.