Risky Business: Religion in the Primaries

Recently in our AP Gov class, we watched one of the signature “Democracy in America” videos that featured a segment on John F. Kennedy’s campaign in West Virginia during the 1960 primaries. The segment touched on Kennedy’s rather gutsy campaign in West Virginia after a slim victory in the Wisconsin primary– though West Virginia is typically one of the smaller primaries, Kennedy’s Catholicism magnified the significance of the election particularly on account of the large Protestant proportion of West Virginian voters. Though it was brief, the segment resonated with me. With all the current hubbub about religion in politics, a particular quote from JFK in one of his speeches while campaigning in West Virginia provoked some thought in me.

“Now there is nothing in my religious faith that prevents me from executing my oath of office. If I thought that there was I wouldn’t take it. If I thought there was I shouldn’t be not even president– I shouldn’t be Senator, I shouldn’t have been Congressman. To be frank with you I shouldn’t have been taken into the service of the United States. Because on that occasion in 1941 I also swore to uphold and defend the Constitution.”

After having a conversation with my dad about Kennedy’s campaign strategies in the midst of this, we both found it interesting that JFK ultimately aimed to develop close, personal relationships with voters, having individual conversations and sending them personal thank you notes afterward. Additionally, though, Kennedy used these personal relationships to diminish the typically harsh notions of Catholicism. He took both his religion and his allegiance to the Constitution very seriously, as well as the relationship between the two. However, it seems with the primaries today, the regard for that same relationship is different. While I have no doubt that the nominees currently running have any intention of letting their religious beliefs prevent them from executing their oath of office, one could argue that some of their beliefs would violate certain aspects of the Constitution. For example, Mitt Romney was recently quoted saying, “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that” and if elected, he would reduce funding exponentially to the program. While this could have been simply a tactical move to bolster his refuted reputation as a “true conservative” and possibly to appeal more to conservative evangelical voters, his decision to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood would ultimately violate the implied right to privacy in the Constitution– not to mention the general welfare of women’s health. So finally, while I’m not saying there is or isn’t a “right way” to regard that relationship between upholding religious beliefs and belief in the Constitution, the intent underneath the beliefs should always remain clear and visible.



  1. It is interesting to see how religion in politics has changed. Religion is a personal belief system, which I don’t think should be another playing piece in a political game. Using religion to describe levels of conservatism is not how to define a candidate. However, religion should not be discounted entirely. Similar to the JFK election, the current primaries have been greatly influenced by Christianity. Religion itself should not be a deciding factor, but how they apply it to their political life. For a country based with religious values, but choose separation of church and state, religion holds an integral and very important role.


    • Hey Katherine,

      Firstly, thanks so much for reading. Secondly, I find your point very intriguing. While I would agree with you that in the founding of this country (particularly if you look in early founding documents) you will find aspects of religion and religious faith, and that religion should not be a deciding factor or a singular, defining characteristic of a candidate, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this country is based in religious values, but rather in principles that promote and protect the decency and wellbeing among residents. Additionally, what with all the conservative hubbub in the Republican primaries today and the strong, sometimes unfriendly voices that go along with those situations (whether politicians, media representatives, etc.), religion today often gets a bad rap. In fact, I believe that sometimes, religion can be an indicator of a “good” person (I put that in quotes because describing a person as “good” is very, very broad) but at the same time, I think it should be the principles and values guiding an individual to be the “best person they can be” that are applied to their political decisions rather than just the religion itself.

      Again, thanks so much for reading! I really appreciate your insight!


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