Politics & Policy

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.

Read 50 years later, without a visceral appreciation of its Daniel-in-the-lions’-den nature, Kennedy’s speech can seem almost boilerplate. He praises America’s tradition of religious tolerance, stresses his own independence and that of all Catholics in politics, and denies that the Church has any designs on America’s government. He lists some issues that might involve Catholic doctrine (“birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling”), then somewhat illogically denies that a conflict between his conscience and the national interest is “remotely possible,” then promises to resign if one does come up. While Kennedy’s speech did not end anti-Catholic rhetoric in the 1960 campaign, it is generally believed that it did succeed in defusing the religion issue (though if he had lost the razor’s-edge election that November, we would be saying it failed).

Today’s politics look very different. Congress is run by a Catholic and a Mormon, the president is a black-radical Christian, and the Supreme Court consists of six Catholics and three Jews. One front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination is a Mormon (who formerly governed JFK’s home state); in 2000 the nation came within an eyelash of electing an Orthodox Jew as vice president. It’s safe to say that Americans’ tolerance for religious diversity in politics has greatly expanded in the last half-century. What happened?

A lot of things. Coincidentally or not, JFK’s assassination was followed by a decade-long wave of upheavals in religion, politics, and culture, whose common element was rejection of authority. The Second Vatican Council and its aftermath demystified the Church in many ways, even as (for a variety of reasons, some self-inflicted) Church authorities lost the social and political leadership role they had traditionally played, particularly in urban areas. Within a few decades, religion no longer held the central place in most American Catholics’ lives that it had for their parents and grandparents. The idea that Catholics would blindly obey the pope seemed much less plausible when only a handful showed up at Mass and many openly ignored the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage.

Meanwhile, the decline and fall of Communism decreased the virulence of left-wing anti-Catholic sentiment. And, contrary to hopes that it would put an end to the abortion debate, Roe v. Wade (1973) instead focused pro-life efforts on issues like partial-birth abortion and parental notification, which were easy for moderates of all religious beliefs to get behind. With these changes, along with the mainstreaming of evangelical churches and the rise of a coherent conservative movement, the notion of a distinct set of “Catholic issues” gradually dissolved.

Oddly, this steady decrease in the importance attached to a president’s religious beliefs has accompanied a steady increase in their relevance to his job. During the 1960 campaign, L. Brent Bozell wrote in National Review that the only area where Catholic teachings might touch on a president’s decisions was “the (very slim) possibility that in the next eight years Congress will propose foreign exportation of contraceptive advice.” Today, with the great expansion of federal authority (an ironic legacy of the anti-authority 1960s), every president makes decisions in a number of areas that have Catholic implications: abortion and its funding, embryonic-stem-cell research, sex education, health care, redistribution of wealth, school vouchers, same-sex marriage. In fact, now that so few people are afraid of the Church, it has gained ground on issues like aid to Catholic schools and the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican, both of which JFK specifically opposed in his Houston speech (thereby incurring criticism from some Catholics).

Moreover, the suggestion that a politician might get in trouble with the Church hierarchy for voting the wrong way is no longer a chimera; several bishops have refused communion to legislators whose votes violated Catholic doctrine on abortion. Yet this is generally seen as something between the politician and his church; no one is suggesting that the Vatican wants to take over the country, let alone that it could. Kennedy’s bold assertion that he would not be ruled by priests is taken for granted when discussing today’s politicians.

Instead, charges of plotting to rule the nation are much more often made against other influential groups: unions, corporations, Wall Street, greens, gun owners, peaceniks, neoconservatives. Indeed, the more fervent adherents of some political causes are described with terms like “fundamentalist,” “messianic,” and “cult-like.” These days, it seems, Americans are religious about everything except religion; and it’s a sign of Catholicism’s widening acceptance and waning influence that, instead of being feared as a monolithic bloc that unquestioningly follows the dictates of its leaders, Catholics have come to be seen as just another interest group.

– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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