In a lecture called “”Behind the Altars of Camelot: The Religion of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy,” Mr. David Holmes revealed some very interesting details about the religious upbringing of the couple and how it affected their political life. Holmes shared anecdotes and key points from the Kennedy chapter in his soon-to-be-published book “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents” (Athens: University of Georgia Press, late Summer 2011).
JFK’s religion first became a hot-button public issue during the 1960 presidential election. This time in history was a time of great tensions between Protestants and Catholics in America. Many voters cast their ballots for Kennedy simply for the reason that he was a Catholic. Others feared that a Roman Catholic president could pose a threat to religious freedom. In recent elections, candidates have had to show that they were religious. Kennedy faced the opposite problem; he had to show that he was less religious than was assumed. To that end, he declared his independence from the bishops and cardinals of his Church and articulated his belief in the separation of church and state in several speeches. This quelled the fear of many voters that Catholicism would influence his decisions as president.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was raised by two Catholic parents. His mother Rose was a very devout Catholic who went to mass every day–sometimes even twice a day. Although less devout, his father Joe also took an interest in Catholicism. He wanted to create an American Catholic dynasty, one that would parallel the Protestant Brahmins of Boston. Throughout his schooling, JFK’s classmates were largely Jewish, Protestant, or secular. By his senior year at Harvard, he became skeptical about his inherited religion. Although also raised Catholic, Jackie too had moments where she doubted her faith. At JFK’s funeral, she said “I believe in God, I believe in Heaven. But where has God gone?”
According to Holmes, Jack and Jackie’s social and religious life didn’t fit most people’s image of typical American Catholics. “If they fit any religious stereotype, it was Episcopalianism– the wealthiest and most worldly of the Protestant sects.” For Kennedy, religion was no lithmus test: only one member of his original Cabinet was a Catholic.
What was the nature of JFK’s religious faith? According to Holmes, “That is very difficult to determine. He was very private, very reluctant to open up to people, especially about his spiritual
beliefs. As a result, people tended to see about his religion what they wanted to see.” At the time of his presidency, it was commonly believed that he was quite Catholic. Today, however, after more has been revealed about his private life, many revisionist scholars say that after college Kennedy moved into a private unitarianism or even skepticism. Holmes says Kennedy’s faith can be described as a “tribal loyalty” into the Church into which he was born.
“Kennedy discussed members of the Catholic hierarchy with the same irreverent candor with which he spoke of Democratic Party bosses… However, there is no evidence that he ever thought of converting to any other form of Christianity.” Holmes said in conclusion that the debate over JFK’s religion in 1960 was essentially unnecessary; religion should not have been made an issue in that election. No major difference existed between Kennedy and Nixon over what role religion ought to play in politics.