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November 23, 2013

Hoax letter was sign of times during JFK era

MEADVILLE — Although it was a big issue during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, a candidate’s religion wouldn’t be much of a driver now, according to some area political scientists.

When John F. Kennedy won the election in 1960, it showed a Roman Catholic could win the presidency, but sentiment against having a Catholic president still was prevalent, according to Charles Larson Sr. of Vernon Township.

Larson, himself a Catholic, has a copy of a hoax letter that circulated in the Pittsburgh area not long after Kennedy took office in January 1961. Larson was working at an A&P Foods warehouse in Braddock when he got a copy of the letter and kept it. Larson said he remembered having the letter because of the 50-year observance of JFK’s assassination.

“When (Kennedy) was elected president, somebody didn’t like it because he was a Catholic and they were against him just for that particular reason, I believe,” Larson, 84, said Saturday.

The letter, listed as Executive Order Number Eight, is an obvious hoax with such lines as “West Point will become a Parochial school” and “No more income tax, put the money in the collection basket.”

“In one way it’s funny, and in another it’s kind of racist,” Larson’s wife, Miriam, said with a laugh.

The public’s attitude toward religion has changed in the national political scene during the last 50 years, according to political scientists.

“Two generations ago, people were wary of having a Catholic president,” Mike Coulter, a political science professor at Grove City College, said Saturday. “Today, the perception of religion is different.”

Coulter notes religion hasn’t played a part in presidential elections — noting Vice President Joe Biden is a Catholic; Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democratic Party vice presidential candidate in 2000, is an Orthodox Jew; and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in the 2012 election, is a Mormon.

Plus, Coulter points out there are a mix of religions on the U.S. Supreme Court with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor are Catholics and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan are Jewish.

Brian Harward, a professor of political science at Allegheny College and director of Allegheny’s Center for Political Participation, agrees with Coulter’s assessment

“In a presidential campaign these days, it’s going to be the candidate’s personality and the issues for the nature of the times,” Harward said. “Romney’s religion didn’t play a part in 2012 — it was an economic-centered campaign.”

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at

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