Until November 1960, a Catholic had never been elected president of the United States. Al Smith, a Catholic of Irish origin, had tried it in 1928 and lost due to the anti-Catholic prejudice of the white Protestant majority. To the meaning of this reversion I dedicate this part of the series.*
The separation of church and state, written into the U.S. Constitution 200 years ago by Protestants who feared Rome as much as one another, had been the excuse for not having diplomatic relations with the Vatican State (relations that were established recently In 1983, under President Reagan, a Presbyterian who had been baptized Catholic).
You must have lived it to understand it.
The American Catholic world in 1960 was essentially a social castle, with walls of social protection for the 24% of U.S. inhabitants who professed the faith. It was an enclosed parallel society, governed by clerics (most of whom were of Irish origin and had their own fierce ethnic prejudices).
That small country within a country, which had been carved from the 1840s when the Irish came massively fleeing the potato famine, had seen the addition of waves of later European Catholic immigrants: Poles, Italians, Germans, Czechs and several Slavs.
A 1960s U.S. Catholic was seriously a Catholic. He went to Mass every Sunday, did not eat meat on Fridays and was part of huge families. He went to a Catholic school, whether parochial or private. If he was a worker, he joined a union in which his fellow Catholics were members with the active support of the clergy during strikes. The "lace curtain" Irish (except for the Kennedys), went to Catholic universities and from there entered Catholic law firms or Catholic brokers.
Our typical U.S. Catholic man married a Catholic woman and had 6 to 12 children. He bought insurance from a Catholic agent and went to Catholic bankers. He never joined a number of associations because they were Protestant and neither he nor his wife ever considered sending their children to a public school. Catholics paid taxes for public schools and also supported a network of parochial schools that did not receive a cent from the government.
On vacation they went to beaches where Catholics were welcome (often because hoteliers were Catholics). Oh, and since the Irishmen of New York and Chicago had built powerful local political machineries, being Catholic meant voting for pro-Catholic unions and the Democratic Party, not the Protestant, Republican, elite party.
The vast majority of Catholics had been poor and working class until the GI Bill, which subsidized the university for the soldiers who served in World War II (thus generating the broad post-war professional middle class).
The Irish came out of poverty by entering police work, then intelligence (there is even an inside joke in the CIA that the agency's abbreviation stands for "Catholics In Action"), local politics, trade unions, or the priesthood. Because they were the only natively English-speaking Catholic immigrants, the Irish became the ring leaders of all Catholic immigrants.
The Italians (some of them) formed the Mafia, which originally was a set of independent self-protection groups (as they had been in Italy, when the Sicilians fought Italian annexation). The Poles were at the bottom of the social ladder, and were the target of prejudiced humor. There was for a time, from the 1880s at the end of World War I, a vibrant German Catholic community that supported its own bilingual German-English schools; this was destroyed by (a) the Irish clergy and (b) the war, when being of German origin was something that one hid.
Most non-Catholics do not know this part of our history and therefore do not realize how enormous it was for Catholics to see one of their own nominated and elected president. To the Protestant majority, Kennedy was just an appealing young man (and how young man he seems to me now!) in a hurry to get things done.
Listening President Kennedy's speeches once again after so many years, it is surprising to note how often he used the word "revolution" to describe nearly every proposal and challenge he posed. Yet, if one takes off his glasses of nostalgia, there is no doubt that he was a relatively conservative president.
In fact, what was revolutionary about Kennedy and the other John of his time, Popr John XXIII, was the role they assumed just as social culture was shifting. They were both catalysts of a social and cultural revolution that seemed to start in the United States and, through the U.S. megaphone of Hollywood and popular music, in the world.
For Catholics, Kennedy's election meant that the gilded
doors of the famed American Dream had finally opened at all levels. In
the 1960s, Americans of Irish descent rose in socioeconomic terms to the
upper middle class. (In the United States the idea persists that we are
all middle class, but we aren't.) Before 1960, Catholics were mostly
non-professional, industrial and manual workers; after that, a very
large proportion of Catholics became white collar workers and affluent.
How brief a shining moment it was! One moment, as I recall, even the nuns at school seemed to be walking on a happy cloud in November of 1960; the next moment, they were crying, on another November, three years later.
* This is the second in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers.