At nearly 9 p.m. on Sept. 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy stepped to a podium in the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.
In a ballroom filled with 300 pastors from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and 300 spectators, Kennedy delivered a speech that many scholars believe may have won him the White House.
“I believe in an America,” said the 43-year-old Democratic candidate, “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 – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
Kennedy vowed that if he were elected president he would uphold the Constitution, keep church and state separate and not substitute his Roman Catholic religious beliefs for the national interest in making public policy. (See “John F. Kennedy On Religion And Politics,” October 2010 Church & State.)
“Kennedy kept those promises,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “In this inspiring address, he laid down a clear church-state benchmark that has served us well in the decades since then.”
Last month was the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s insightful oration, which has been praised – and criticized – over the years. For advocates of church-state separation, it resonates today just as it did then.
The speech came at a time when Kennedy was facing heat for his Catholic religious affiliation. Though there had already been two Catholic Supreme Court justices and numerous Catholics in Congress and the state legislatures, no Catholic had served as president.
At the time of the 1960 presidential race, tension between Catholics and Protestants remained high. The Catholic hierarchy was known for pushing a controversial political agenda that included a ban on the sale of contraceptives, censorship of books and movies and government aid to parochial schools.
To make matters worse for Kennedy, the election was prior to Vatican II, the international conclave of bishops in Rome that finally put the church officially on record in support of religious liberty. Before Vatican II, which began in 1962 and ended in 1965, the church hierarchy in Rome often sought preferential treatment from governments around the world.
Interfaith tension surrounding the election grew when The New York Times published a front-page article reporting that prominent preacher Norman Vincent Peale had formed an organization of 150 Protestant ministers to address the religion issue in the presidential race. The group, whose members favored Republican candidate Richard Nixon, believed that the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed status as both a church and a temporal state, made Kennedy’s faith a legitimate concern.
Many Americans feared that a Catholic president would not be able to separate his policies from church doctrine and would be under enormous pressure to obey the Catholic bishops on both religious and political concerns. Kennedy and his campaign officers knew that if they did not address this issue head on, it would cost him the election.
The Kennedy campaign organized a community relations division to focus specifically on the matter. James Wine, a staff member at the National Council of Churches, was put in charge, and he reportedly answered between 600 and 1,000 letters per week about Kennedy’s religious beliefs.
In March of 1959, Kennedy began speaking out on the issue himself. He wrote an article in Look magazine opposing public aid for parochial schools and pledged to remain independent from religious leaders in his decision making.
“Whatever one’s religion in his private life,” Kennedy wrote, “nothing takes precedence over the office holder’s oath to uphold the Constitution in all its parts, including the First Amendment requirement of the separation of church and state.”
While the article seemed to go over well with the public, it drew harsh criticism from some conservative Catholics, who accused Kennedy of putting ambition to become president before his faith commitment.
Some in the Protestant press also criticized him. Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian theologian, wrote that “in Kennedy’s effort to assure his possible constituency that he is just a regular American, he has succeeded only in demonstrating that he is rather an irregular Christian.”
Glenn Archer, former executive director of Americans United, however, disagreed with those views and said he sympathized with Kennedy’s perspective. In his memoir The Dream Lives On, Archer said he believed that “JFK was merely restating a sensible tradition of our heritage.”
Until Kennedy began to speak out, some Americans United leaders had been concerned with whether Kennedy would, in fact, uphold church-state separation. To clear the air, the organization composed a list of questions for Kennedy on his ideas about church-state separation and whether he could be sufficiently independent of the Catholic hierarchy and canon law as a president.
Archer said AU wanted to “bring the issue out into the open to end the smokescreen, and to create a framework within which discussion about these vital issues could be held.”
Some argue that AU’s decision to urge the presidential candidate to deal openly with these issues helped him put the controversy behind him. Kennedy family members apparently shared that perspective. In a video greeting at AU’s 50th anniversary dinner in 1997, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said AU’s role was crucial in resolving the controversy over his brother’s run for the White House.
The Sept. 12 Kennedy appearance in Houston was a critical factor in the election. The candidate’s speech, fewer than 1,600 words, was nationally televised, and it eloquently addressed the questions, fears and comments that had bubbled throughout the campaign.
“He proclaimed absolute adherence and loyalty to the Constitution,” AU’s Archer wrote. “Kennedy even boldly promised to resign rather than to submit to clerical dictation of his policy.”
The speech temporarily halted the religion issue in the campaign, and on Election Day, Kennedy won 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. (The popular vote was much closer – 34,220,984 for Kennedy to 34,108,157 for Nixon.)
Advocates of civil liberties – then and now – thought Kennedy’s Houston speech was right on target. Yet even half a century later, some political and religious leaders still complain about it.
In March of this year, speaking at Houston Baptist University, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver said the Kennedy speech was “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.”
The Catholic prelate argued that Kennedy was “very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely ‘wrong.’ His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has also joined the JFK bashing. Over the years, he has publicly criticized Kennedy’s speech, and on Sept. 9, he traveled to Houston to deliver another blast.
“Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to protect the government from religion,” charged Santorum, a Religious Right favorite.
But civil liberties leaders, scholars and journalists have taken a more positive view of Kennedy’s speech. In a recent column, veteran journalist David Broder, who was in the room when Kennedy gave his remarks, called it “one of the best political speeches I ever heard,” adding that it has “often been quoted as defining the American tradition of religious liberty.”
Brian T. Kaylor, a professor at James Madison University and former Baptist pastor, said, “Fifty years later, it remains even clearer today than then that Kennedy’s speech both demonstrated his political savvy and embodied the best of American democratic principles.”
In a Houston Chronicle op-ed, Kaylor added that Kennedy’s vision should “drive Americans of all faiths today to work together for the common good.”