JFK’s ‘Religion Speech’
These days, it seems, Americans are religious about everything except religion.


Fifty years ago this Sunday, on September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, delivered a landmark address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. In the course of a 30-minute speech, which was widely praised afterwards, he reaffirmed in ringing terms the separation of church and state, decried any mixing of religion and politics, and vowed, if elected, never to let his religious views influence his decisions as president.

The speech had been made necessary in part by a flare-up in anti-Catholic sentiment, starting in the late 1940s. Some of this was similar to an earlier variety of anti-popery, to be found in the cartoons of Thomas Nast, the post–World War I revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the sectarian opposition to Al Smith’s 1928 presidential candidacy. But a new strain of this old virus had recently broken out among Eastern urban liberals.

In 1948 Paul Blanshard, a lawyer working for the State Department, who had degrees from Michigan, Harvard, and the Union Theological Seminary, published a series of articles in The Nation, purportedly exposing the Catholic Church’s nefarious influence on American politics and government. While somewhat less crude than the worst examples of folk anti-Catholicism, it was no less apocalyptic: “There is no alternative for champions of traditional American democracy except to build a resistance movement designed to prevent the [Catholic] hierarchy from imposing its social policies upon our schools, hospitals, government, and family organization.” Catholics, wrote Blanshard, cannot “agree with the doctrine of Church-State separation in its American Constitutional form and remain true to Vatican policy.” He also bewailed the Church’s “continuing corruption of human intelligence” and charged that priests were “encouraged to play upon the lowest superstitions of their people.”

The Nation, where Blanshard later became an editor, was a natural home for his views, since Communism, which many leftists either sympathized with or explicitly favored, and Catholicism were longtime enemies. In 1949 Blanshard’s articles were published in book form, as American Freedom and Catholic Power, by the august Beacon Press. Meanwhile, an organization called Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was formed, hiring Blanshard as its “special counsel.”

Then in 1960 the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and pastor of Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, formed Citizens for Religious Freedom. This organization charged that the Catholic Church had “specifically repudiated, on many occasions, the principle sacred to us that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.” The group opposed Kennedy because “it is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests.”

Meanwhile, various ad hoc groups of Protestant ministers — Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and others — announced their own opposition to the election of a Catholic president. The Dallas minister W. A. Criswell, who would later be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, preached a widely reprinted sermon in which he predicted: “If Kennedy wins, with strong emphasis on separation of church and state, then the door is open for another Catholic later who gives . . . recognition of one church above all America.” Thus the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, balanced between a Harvard man from Boston and a rough-and-ready Texan, faced a similar intellectual/good-ol’-boy combination in the anti-Catholic movement.