Stories on the ballot

Percentage-wise, the biggest turnout of voting-age citizens in “the modern era” (post-atomic bomb) is 1960. A little over 60 percent of eligible voters visited the polls. With the popular vote, it was incredibly close. Kennedy got 49.73 percent (34,220,984 votes), Nixon received 49.55 percent (34,108,157 votes).

Like 2016, it was mostly an electoral college victory. Kennedy cinched it with 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. Yet Nixon carried more states – 26 to Kennedy’s 22. (Southern Democrat Harry Byrd took two.)

I’ve been thinking about 1960. Not only because it was so close, and really did alter world history, but because of what I’ve learned was one of the JFK campaign’s major hurdles. Not his youth – he remains our youngest elected president, being sworn in at age 43. No, it was Kennedy’s Catholicism, and the stories people told about it prior to November 1960.

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JFK is our only Catholic president. So far.

Most voting Americans were, and are, Protestant. In 1960, Kennedy detractors said: “As a Catholic, Kennedy’s allegiance will be to the Vatican, not the U.S.!” Which of course was ludicrous. But at the time, that notion, presented as an incontrovertible fact, motivated many millions of Americans to vote for Nixon.

These folks still regarded Catholicism a perversion of Christianity, with the idolatry, the reverence of Mary, the ties to paganism, the unseemly opulence of cathedrals, and the controversial, powerful Vatican. For starters. The prejudice was intense and widely accepted as okay, even gospel.

Kennedy won anyway. Even though he served only three years, the notion that he would be “answering to the Vatican” proved unfounded, to put it mildly.

If Biden wins in November, he will be the second Catholic president. And naturally, the GOP and Trump have a lot of criticism of him and his campaign. But I have seen nothing about his Catholicism. Perhaps because since 1980 most observant Christians, including most Catholics, align themselves with the GOP. So, no talk of Vatican influence being a nightmare scenario.

Yet the weaving of stories to influence voters is more active than ever, efforts to cast a candidate as “beholden” to some entity beyond the citizenry. Even as our technology has made quantum leaps since 1960, we see more storytellers than ever – nefarious and otherwise – depending on the human need for a compelling narrative to latch onto, to accept as gospel truth in a chaotic time, undisputed fact rising above the din. I have never seen anything like it, actually. Both the stories, and the bone-deep belief.

We are not so different from our ancestors gazing into the fire, not so secular after all. The acute need to find a place, a person, for our devotional energies, is stronger than ever. I daresay it is a reaction to our technology, to science, to relativism. Old myths dying in the harsh, unforgiving light of those things, leaving a god-shaped hole some are all too eager, and, it appears, able to fill.

I wonder: when the dust clears from election 2020 (as hard as that is to imagine), which stories will go the way of “Kennedy’s allegiance to the Vatican,” i.e. into the dustbin of history, and which will take root, and shape the future?

Personally, I’m predicting a tsunami of turnout to rival 1960, and the above question will definitely be on the ballot.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.