JFK, Catholicism, and Civil Religion

Sarah Palin has written that John F. Kennedy, in his famous speech to the Houston ministers, tried to divorce his private faith from his public role. In response, JFK’s niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writes that his Catholic faith did indeed shape his life. “America’s first and only Catholic president referred to God three times in his inaugural address and invoked the Bible’s command to care for poor and the sick.” True, JFK quoted the Bible twice during his inaugural — but it was the Protestant King James Bible, not the Catholic Douay Rheims Bible.

Okay, that’s just a gotcha. The more serious point is that Catholicism per se had little impact on Kennedy’s policies. It would be more accurate to say that he was an ardent adherent of the civil religion. Indeed, when sociologist Robert Bellah used the term, his very first example was the Kennedy inaugural and its assertion that “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” JFK passionately believed in American exceptionalism, the idea that God has chosen the United States for a special role in the world. Just before entering the White House, he gave a speech quoting John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” line — later to become a favorite of President Reagan.

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