The advent of the West Virginia primary May 10 saw the religious issue take on wholesome new meaning within the U. S. political scene.
Whatever the outcome, this much was clear: Candid debate about the political ramifications of Senator John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism marked a significant step forward in American Church-State understanding.
“Some very calm and respected national voices are saying that the open discussion of the religious issue is a sign of progress,” reported The Christian Science Monitor, “far better than the whispers which accompanied the 1928 presidential campaign.”
The spontaneous origin of the 1960 debate at grass roots may indicate that there has developed a fuller sensitivity to the role of religion in politics.
Some observers even dare to hope that discussions may permanently lay to rest the notorious notion that only bigots raise the religious issue.
As the Catholic hierarchy watched quietly, Kennedy began to speak freely of the religious issue even while discrediting its importance (as did other presidential contenders: Nixon, “inexcusable”; Stevenson, “irrelevant”; and Humphrey, “divisive”).
Pivotal point in the Kennedy strategy was his April 21 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It marked the first time he had gone out of his way to discuss religion. He scolded the press so severely that not a single editor of the 400 present took up his offer to answer questions.
“The great bulk of West Virginians paid very little attention to my religion—until they read repeatedly in the nation’s press that this was the decisive issue in West Virginia,” Kennedy said. “I do not think that religion is the decisive issue in any state.”
“I do not speak for the Catholic church on issues of public policy,” ...1
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