Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Richard Nixon: Victim of Religious Prejudice and Religious Pluralism

Chris Beneke

The morning after his loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential balloting, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon was awakened by vigorous tugging on his arm. No doubt groggy after two hours of election-shortened sleep, Nixon found his twelve-year-old daughter Julie next to him. She had been concerned by the previous evening’s returns and wanted to know the final outcome. Hearing the bad news, Julie then posed what her father described as a “strange and disturbing question.” “Daddy,” she asked, “why did people vote against you because of religion?” As Nixon recalled in his 1962 political biography Six Crises, he assured his daughter that people didn’t choose candidates because they “happen to be Jews or Catholics.” Instead, they chose them based on their estimation of the individual candidate’s merits.

This was an inspiring vision of political decision-making that didn’t comport with much else that Nixon wrote about religion and the 1960 election, nor much else in Nixon’s general approach to politics. Never one to underestimate the forces aligned against him nor his own suffering, Nixon went on to explain to readers that a smaller proportion of Catholic voters turned out for him than “any Republican presidential candidate in history (22 per cent).” Worse for his prospects that year, “there was not a corresponding and balancing shift of Protestants away from Kennedy.”

It may have taken the famously huge and fragile ego of Richard M. Nixon to imagine himself as a casualty of both religious tolerance and religious bigotry in the 1960 election, but that seems to have been what he was driving at. Nixon later made the point in a less veiled form. Kennedy’s Catholicism only appeared to be a political liability, Nixon wrote in his 1978 memoir. It actually improved the Massachusetts Senator’s chances:

"The Religious Issue: An Un-American Heritage,"
Life Magazine, July 4, 1960.
The pockets of fundamentalist anti-Catholic prejudice that still existed were concentrated in states that I stood to win anyway. But many Catholics would vote for Kennedy because he was Catholic, and some non-Catholics would vote for him just to prove they were not bigoted.

A master at harvesting resentments for electoral advantage, Nixon had somehow failed to turn anti-Catholicism into a critical mass of votes in the 1960 election. Aside from some covert overtures to anti-Catholics, his strategy seems to have involved subtle references to Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith coupled with ecumenical appeals to Catholic Republicans and liberal Protestants. Shaun Casey, author of The Making of a Catholic President, notes that a supposedly confidential Nixon campaign memorandum, indicating that Kennedy’s faith would not be exploited for electoral gain, was “actually released publicly.” The same style of disingenuity may have been at work in television speech delivered on the eve of the election, in which the Vice-President urged voters to vote for the best candidate no matter what their religious affiliation.

One reasonable conclusion to be drawn from Nixon’s frustration regarding the “religious issue” in the 1960 election was that anti-Catholicism was such a doddering, parochial prejudice by this point in American history that even Nixon (the man whose own White House Counsel would later outline a plan to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”) dared not put it to explicit use. The fear that it would provoke a fierce reaction among Catholics, as well as sympathetic Protestants and Jews, was well-founded. Moreover, Kennedy and his team adeptly refuted charges that the Pope would take up residence in a JFK-White House, simultaneously co-signing bills and issuing encyclicals to Protestants. The result was that the Nixon camp was not able to successfully evoke the gaunt, withered specter of Vatican political power.

Then again, we don’t have to buy Nixon’s full self-pitying narrative to appreciate that he hit on something approaching truth when he portrayed himself as a victim of both Catholic preference for a fellow Catholic and the public’s aversion to the appearance of bigotry. Indeed, Nixon may have stumbled upon a fundamental paradox in the history of modern American thought, which accommodates certain expressions of group identity, while labeling the rest as mere chauvinism. There was no shortage of prejudice in 1960 (religious and otherwise), but what Nixon may have been describing was the tipping of electoral scales toward the flawed liberal dogma of pluralism, which has so far proven superior to all of the alternatives. 


Midwest Reader said...

Or maybe Nixon was just engaging in post-defeat rationalization. He lost Georgia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, and Arkansas in 1960. Wouldn"t these be "states containing the pockets of fundamentalist anti-Catholic prejudice that still existed" that he could possibly have won? Al Smith lost West Virginia and North Carolina in 1928.

hcr said...

Glad this comment reminded me to revive this post, because I, too, found it fascinating. I've just read through RMN's Memoirs, and more even than his post-defeat rationalization, this suggests to me his incredible paranoia. No matter what happened, there were Enemies Waiting To Get Him. And he defined them all as a members of some un-American "group" he could find a patriotic reason to hate.

But I had never thought of Catholics as being one of those groups.

Thanks for this, Chris.