A friend of mine, who is about ten years older than I am, recently wrote this about his memories of the 1960 Presidential Election:
I distinctly remember hearing the pastor of the First Christian Church of Flora, Illinois, warn the congregation of dire consequences if a certain Senator from Massachusetts were to run for and win the Presidency. The gist of it was that a Roman Catholic would be duty-bound to follow the Pope's direction, not the Constitution. (My father sincerely believed that the Knights of Columbus were the core of a Catholic army that would someday overthrow the U.S. government, en route to controlling the world.)
I was 9-years-old in 1960, in fourth grade at St. Peter's Catholic School in Mansfield, Ohio. As always, Ohio was in play and I saw both Nixon and Kennedy in person.
Kennedy was first, in the town square. It was just a few blocks from my school and my parents let me borrow their camera, an awesome responsibility. It was either after school or, just as likely, they let us out of school so we could go.
Nixon was later, at the local public school's football stadium. The whole family went to that one.
Although my parents were Republicans and for Nixon, virtually everyone else I knew was for Kennedy, including everyone else in Mom's family, and all of the teachers at school. We also heard the concerns of our Protestant friends and neighbors, expressed exactly as my friend above remembers it.
There was a small amount of pressure on Catholics to vote for the Catholic but my parents were in no sense ostracized or even hassled for going the other way. I don't recall it ever being mentioned explicitly from the pulpit but it wouldn't surprise me if it was. The priests, the nuns, the teachers, most were Democrats anyway and very enamored of Kennedy.
My mother, always the rebel in her family, was a Republican even before her sister married the local Democratic Party Chairman, with whom Mom feuded for the rest of her life. It didn't stop her from encouraging her kids (including me) to take political patronage jobs offered by various uncles, however.
The people in my parish were mostly Poles, Italians, and Hungarians, who were second or third generation immigrants, or Irish and Germans (my family) who had been here a couple of generations longer. Mansfield then was a miniature version of Cleveland. Catholics were immigrants, laborers and Democrats.
The excitement about Kennedy among Catholics was very similar to the excitement now about Obama. It wasn't like that in my home, but I received a big dose of it in church, at school, and from my extended family.
My Dad was raised a Democrat in St. Louis. He was only nominally Catholic. My Irish grandmother made sure he was baptized but her devotion didn't stop her from divorcing my grandfather. Dad was raised by his grandmother, who was nominally a non-denominational Protestant Christian but not much of a church-goer. Dad became a Republican sometime before I came along. I'm hazy about exactly why but I can't imagine him as a Democrat.
That's all apropos of my family not being much into that feeling that electing a Catholic president would validate us as first class Americans. A couple of my ancestors on my Dad's side fought in the Revolution and Dad was at Pearl Harbor, so we didn't feel that, but we sure lived in a sea of it. I had experienced anti-Catholic prejudice as a kid so I understood what Kennedy meant to many Catholics.
As for the Knights of Columbus, they did wear swords when they came to funerals and weddings but I wasn't afraid of them and I was nine.