50 Years Later JFK is Still an Oracle about Church and State Relationship
Today on ABC News’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour a small segment was devoted to looking back at the historic 1960 presidential election of John F. Kennedy, fifty years ago this week. The brief segment was focused on the unprecedented political issues surrounding two “firsts:” the nomination of a Roman Catholic to run for the office of President of the United States and the role of live television debates. It is this first matter, the controversies that arose in response to Senator Kennedy’s religion during his candidacy, that I think is worth recalling today.
At a time before the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), JFK found himself under serious scrutiny because of his professed faith as a practicing Roman Catholic during the modernity-fearing era of ecclesiastical governance. Many non-Catholics believed that a U.S. President could not, in good standing, be a Roman Catholic because he (women as presidential candidates at the time would not have been a factor) would have split loyalties — between the U. S. Constitution and electorate on one hand and the Roman Pontiff on the other.
Kennedy, in a manner that exhibited wisdom far ahead of his time, addressed the concern in September 1960, while speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (you can read the whole transcript here). In what will eventually become a classic speech (one of JFK’s many such classics), Kennedy began his remarks in a way that demonstrated his lack of understanding as to why such a seemingly minor (at least to him) issue has garnered so much attention, while other more pressing and widespread issues remain subordinated.
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers only 90 miles from the coast of Florida — the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power — the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms — an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.
And while he sees the need to address this concern as a distraction from other issues, what follows remains insightful for us today. Recent commentators, such as Stanley Fish, have sought to remind the U. S. citizenry of this nation’s constitutional and historical structure and underpinnings. Contrary to what some politicians, pundits and cable-news provocateurs have desired to do in “re-writing our American history” (to borrow a phrase from the Portland Examiner columnist Michael Stone), this nation has never been a “Christian” nation, nor has it been associated with any other confessional tradition. Kennedy knew this, and said:
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
I have, for quite some time now, advocated that people not compartmentalize their religious convictions in a manner that results in a disconnection between “public” and “private” life. That means realizing that what we do on Sunday morning has an intimate connection to what we say and do during the rest of the week. This is a matter of personal authenticity. However, given the construction of this nation, in an effort (a good effort at that) to secure the rights of all its citizens, this means that confessional discourse does not fit into the political, legislative or governing spheres.
I think now is indeed a good time to look again at Kennedy’s speech about Church and State. He still has something to say to us today.