JFK and the So-Called Religious Issue

John F. Kennedy is and remains our only Chief Executive who was Roman Catholic. And it still seems no small wonder that he got elected at all. As his speechwriter and close aide, the late Ted Sorensen once said, "The single biggest obstacle to his election was his religion. You should have seen the hate mail that came in, both from rednecks and from liberal intellectuals who should have known better." During the election of 1960, in spite of the strong public urging of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee (one of whose members was George Romney, two years away from being elected Governor of Michigan) that the election be conducted without religious animus, Kennedy had to endure, and eventually confront, what he would come to call "the so-called religious issue." And confront it he did on Sept. 12, 1960, in the Crystal Ballroom of the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas, at an event sponsored by the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

According to one JFK biographer the setting for the speech had the "earmarks of an inquisition," and Sorensen the week before had predicted that the election could be won or lost that Monday night as several hundred mostly Protestant pastors eagerly awaited JFK's remarks. The speech lasted just a little over 10 minutes; it was televised across the battleground state of Texas. The speech was not interrupted at all by applause, yet Sorensen later would argue, "It was the best speech of the campaign and one of the most important in his life. Only his Inaugural Address could be said to surpass it in power and eloquence."

Kennedy had not choice but to address the issue of the separation of church and state. One leading Protestant minister from Dallas, Texas declared publicly that Roman Catholicism "is not only a religion, it is a political tyranny." Thus, he concluded, "It is written in our country's constitution that church and state must be, in this nation, forever separate and free." The president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time argued, "No matter what Kennedy might say, he cannot separate himself from his church if he's a true Catholic." A national group of Protestant ministers led by Norman Vincent Peale (and encouraged behind the scenes by Billy Graham) stated that the Roman Catholic church "is a political as well as a religious organization," one that has "repeatedly attempted to break down the wall of separation between church and state." Another leading Protestant theologian and seminary president averred that Kennedy was the "captive of system" not unlike the Kremlin. Thus, when Kennedy spoke that night in Houston he had to, in the words of Sorensen, "state his position so clearly and comprehensively that no reasonable man could doubt his adherence to the Constitution."

Kennedy stated that, "contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me." He viewed the presidency as "a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president," Kennedy argued, "whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

In what Sorensen called "the most controversial paragraph of the speech," Kennedy contended that, "if the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same." In his speech Kennedy did not advocate in any way removing religion from the public square, as presidential candidate Rick Santorum has argued in recent days. Nor did Kennedy explicitly or implicitly maintain that religion and politics could or should be hermetically sealed off from each other. This becomes crystal clear when one reads the answers offered by Kennedy to questions from the floor following his speech, where, among other things, Kennedy conceded that while he probably did not convert anyone present that evening to his faith, he hoped he did convince them he was no puppet of the Pope and danger to American democracy.

In his speech Kennedy had to show that his Catholicism did not make him, on its own, unfit for the presidency. Earlier in the campaign, for instance, Norman Vincent Peale publicly declared "our culture is at stake" and that a Catholic president would "be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests." At one time during the 1960 campaign Kennedy was even asked to explain what a bunch of nuns were doing running through the corridors of the Pentagon. The anti-Catholic vitriol of the season was such that Kennedy had to make such a bold claim as "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote[.]" In other words, Kennedy actually did the likes of Senator Santorum a great service, if he would only take the time to read the speech and remember the context closely.