Title

John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, 1960-1963

Date of Award

Spring 2017

Project Type

Dissertation

Program or Major

History

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Ellen Fitzpatrick

Second Advisor

Kurk Dorsey

Third Advisor

Jason Sokol

Abstract

In his campaign for the presidency, in 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy endured a grueling vetting process by virtue of his Catholic faith. Conventional narratives depict Kennedy’s ultimate victory as a turning point that announced a new era, free of religious prejudice, and marked the beginning of the “secular sixties.” In fact, religious concerns, including old denominational animosities, did not suddenly disappear. Faith-based engagement with politics continued through the early 1960s. Debates over education, foreign policy, civil rights, and Supreme Court rulings elicited significant public attention, not least for their religious dimensions. President Kennedy nourished these debates sometimes in spite of himself, because Protestants feared an accretion of “Catholic power.” He was not only a passive witness to these religious issues, however. His tact and even-handedness in the face of religious controversy, his liberal agenda, and his outreach to likeminded faith actors enabled him to appease longstanding suspicions. Thus Kennedy also played a central part in the realignment of American religious activism in the 1960s. He inspired and emboldened cooperation between Catholics and Protestants on an ideological basis. In the process, his administration set in motion an interdenominational conservative reaction that would fully emerge in the next decade and that is still with us in the twenty-first century.

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