Bias in the Republican Party? Connecting the Dots of Catholic Electoral History

Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. – 1 Peter 3:8

For this week’s seminar, the Ramonat scholars were required to find articles covering the numerous Catholic Candidates who made runs for the White House. Out of the articles that I found, the most interesting one was from the October 1960 issue of the Chicago Defender.

Robert Kennedy Charges Bias

According to the article, Robert Kennedy accused various elements of the Republican party of distributing anti-Catholic material. Robert Kennedy made these accusations while functioning as the campaign manager for his brother John F. Kennedy. The article mentions that Robert Kennedy did not believe that Nixon had knowledge of the material. This article is significant for two reasons. First, it was published in the Chicago Defender. This paper was one of the only publications in Chicago written for an African-American community. An interest in anti-Catholic propaganda might be common in the 1960 African-American community in Chicago. Facing a nation that was biased against them, their newspaper might try to show how the Democratic candidate experienced similar discrimination. While African Americans have a different history in the United States, both communities share a history of not being at home in the American establishment.

The Front Page of an Issue of the Chicago Defender


This article is also important because it fits within a working model of Catholic electoral politics developed during the seminar. A small group of students I worked with discussed that Catholicism shifted from being a nail in the foot to a tool in a politician’s tool box throughout the 20th century. For example, Al Smith had to face an editorial in the Atlantic Monthly questioning his ability to govern as a Catholic. Smith also worked very hard to disassociate his Catholic identity from his ability to govern. Today, politicians like Jeb Bush and Tim Kaine will discuss their Catholic faith when addressing Catholic audiences.

Jeb Bush meets Pope Benedict XVI

Where does the Chicago’s Defender’s fit into this model of Catholic politics? John F. Kennedy functions as a bridge between the two eras of Catholic politics. Kennedy accepted his identity as a Catholic. He did not try to divorce himself from the tradition like Al Smith did. One begins to see the seeds of the Jeb Bush variety of Catholicism in that Kennedy begins to not see his faith as a total negative in his life. While he accepted his Catholic identity, he had to face the same anti-Catholic attacks. The article makes it evident that some elements of the nation were not keen on seeing a Catholic in the White House. In these attacks, one can find remnants of the anti-Catholicism seen in the 1928 election.

Another way that the article points out the shift from detriment to tool in American Catholic politics is that Nixon did not know about the propaganda. If the highest levels of the party were not aware of the anti-Catholic bias, the propaganda might have come from grassroots and local sources. The implication is that Catholics were becoming more accepted on the national level of politics. By becoming more accepted, Catholics might be able to use their Catholicism in certain contexts.

The road that Catholics have walked in 20th century America is a fascinating one. While Catholics were originally wary to discuss their faith on the public stage, modern Catholic politicians will use it in some contexts. The article from 1960 charging anti-Catholic bias within the Republican party fits perfectly as a moment of transition from the old anti-Catholicism of the 1928 election to the more accepted context of today.

anti-catholic cartoon 3.jpg
Anti-Catholic Cartoon

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