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John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, Patrick Lacroix

Reviewed by David O'connell


In this brisk new offering, independent scholar Patrick Lacroix ambitiously seeks to “restore the early 1960s… to a place of prominence in histories of twentieth-century US religion” (p. 181). To a degree, he succeeds.

The title of Lacroix's book, John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, might give readers the wrong impression. Those expecting fresh insights into John Kennedy will come away disappointed. Kennedy is an elusive presence throughout the book. The long-running scholarly debate about the depth of Kennedy's personal faith is dispatched within a few introductory pages (pp. 7–15). Likewise, Chapter 5 focuses on the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, as well as Vatican II—events that Kennedy had no direct involvement with, and barely even publicly commented on. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, since Lacroix admits to beginning his research feeling “perfectly indifferent” toward Kennedy (p. vii). So instead of a study of John Kennedy or his presidency, it is better to understand this book as one attempting to map out the religious conversations swirling about the Kennedy administration with respect to church-state issues that arose during his brief tenure, conversations often taking place in speeches, in letters written to the White House, or in the pages of religious publications like Commonweal, America, Christian Century, and others.

By analyzing these responses, as well as paying attention to the mobilization of various religious groups, Lacroix attempts to convince the reader that the religious cultural alliances that would come to mark American politics in the second half of the twentieth century—alliances that united liberal members of different religious traditions in opposition to the more conservative members of those traditions—were forming well before most recognize. Because of Kennedy's consistent embrace of the principle of separation of church and state, and his refusal to favor his own church in policymaking, Lacroix reveals how the President often angered fellow Catholics while at the same time courting the support of Protestants who had been suspicious of Catholic political leadership. For example, Chapter 2 contains a valuable discussion of the administration's 1961 decision to ban faith-based groups from receiving contracts with the Peace Corps. The Catholic Church, with its abundant missionary work in Latin America, lost the most from this decision, while Kennedy's choice pleased many (though not all) Protestant sects. Eventually, Lacroix argues, outside events combined with political decisions like these to spark a burgeoning backlash of conservative Catholics and Protestants.

As mentioned earlier, Lacroix partially succeeds in making his case. While it is no doubt true that some of the topics covered in his history, such as the 1960 presidential campaign or the role of religion in the civil rights movement, are covered more impressively elsewhere, Lacroix does shine necessary light on some less studied policies such as Kennedy's nuclear test ban treaty. Still, Lacroix frequently stretches his conclusions beyond the reach of his evidence. For example, it is hard to fully accept his contention that the Kennedy years “helped definitively halt anti-Catholicism as a political force” when it was not until 1984 that diplomatic recognition was finally extended to the Vatican (p. 178). And, Lacroix fixates on the meaning of an obscure address that Kennedy delivered at Boston College in April 1963, mentioning it on 13 of the book's 184 pages. Or, Lacroix consistently oversimplifies the dynamics of evangelical politics, most notably in the civil rights chapter (pp. 120–121).

Still, at one point, Lacroix captures much of his meaning by writing that Kennedy's faith was a “complex variable” (p. 108). Despite its shortcomings, it is hard to come away from this book and not agree on that fundamental point.

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