Monday, January 2, 2017
While surveys in West Virginia that winter had shown Jack ahead 70 to 30 percent, media reports filtering in from Wisconsin caused such hemorrhaging that Jack suddenly found himself trailing by 20 percent as the May 10 primary approached. Asked why, his advisers explained, "No one in West Virginia knew you were Catholic in December. Now they know."
It is difficult to conceive that Catholicism could have been such a stigma as recently as 1960. After all, one in four Americans was Catholic then, making it the biggest religious denomination in the country. John Kennedy was not the first Catholic nominated for president: Al Smith had been the Democrats' standard-bearer thirty-two years earlier. ... Kennedy aides in Washington advised ducking the explosive issue. Those on the ground in West Virginia said that that wasn't an option. The candidate and his brother ended up making the call, the same way Barack Obama would half a century later when race rather than religion was the target of bigots. JFK did not just affirm his faith, he remade the primary campaign and the entire election into a referendum on how tolerant Americans were.
It was a master stroke and the only option. The issue would have festered whether or not he addressed it. Rabid anti-Catholics stood ready to vote against him either way, and this strategy provided a chance to tilt wavering voters his way.
-Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon