The Separation of God from public life

A look back at John F. Kennedy’s disastrously influential speech on secularism to the greater Houston ministerial association. September marks the speech’s 50th anniversary, as it continues to reverberate in America’s politics.

No one could say Jack Kennedy hadn’t seen it coming. In a conversation with his father after the 1956 election, the charismatic young senator from Massachusett s presented the case against his seeking the presidency in 1960: his age—he’d be only 42 by then—and his religion—Roman Catholic.

Old Joe Kennedy blew his stack at that. Kennedy chronicler Thomas Maier quotes him like this:

Just remember, this country is not a private preserve for Protestants…. There’s a whole new generation out there and it’s fi lled with the sons and daughters of immigrants from all over the world and those people are going to be mighty proud that one of their own is running for president. And that pride will be your spur, it will give your campaign an intensity we’ve never seen in public life. Mark my word, I know it’s true.

Although no one has ever accused either Joseph or John Kennedy of being devout, Catholic they undoubtedly were and Catholic, after their own fashion, they undoubtedly meant to stay. By September of 1960, that was starting to catch up with JFK, by then the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

In early September, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a popular preacher and best-selling author (The Power of Positive Thinking), led a group of 150 prominent Protestants in issuing a statement aimed at derailing the Kennedy candidacy by revving up anti-Catholic feeling. Anti-Catholicism had already been bubbling close to the surface of the campaign for months. The Peale statement brought it to a head.

Declaring the Catholic Church to be a “political as well as a religious organization,” Dr. Peale and his friends accused the Church of wanting to destroy the wall of separation between religion and government. If elected president, they asked, could a Catholic like John F. Kennedy “withstand the determined efforts of the hierarchy” aimed at accomplishing that? The clearly implied answer was: Of course not.

To his credit, Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy’s Republican opponent, had spurned the thought of attempting to exploit anti-Catholicism to his advantage. Now he publicly defended Kennedy’s patriotism. But the harm was done. The Peale statement produced a firestorm of media coverage and commentary, supplied fresh legitimacy for stale bigotry, and brought the bigots out of the woodwork in droves.

Then Kennedy made a crucial decision. He’d confront the Catholic issue head-on in a major speech. The result was an address on September 12 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. The speech was then and remains today among the most important American political utterances of the 20th century. Fifty years later, it still has reverberations in the nation’s political and religious life that far exceed the expectations of Jack Kennedy or anybody else at the time.

Speaking last March 1 at Houston Baptist University, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver called the Kennedy speech “sincere, compelling, articulate—and wrong.” He explained:

Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and 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.

Strong words. But others have said the same. Fifty years after the Kennedy speech, his words deserve a close look to see whether they merit such criticism and, if so, why. The point of this exercise isn’t just to roast Jack Kennedy but to contribute to the effort—which will surely be long, slow, and difficult—to undo the harm he did.

First, though, it’s helpful to give some background on the writing of this document.

Authorship of the speech is often attributed to Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s friend, confidant, and longtime ghostwriter. Sorenson may well have done the job. But a large part of the responsibility rests with a Catholic journalist named John Cogley. Cogley, a former executive editor of Commonweal and a columnist for that lay-edited liberal Catholic periodical, would go on to become religion writer for the New York Times and cover Vatican Council II. Eventually he quit the Catholic Church and became an Episcopalian—indeed, a deacon of that church. He died in 1976.

In a November 2004 editorial marking its 80th anniversary, Commonweal gave this account of events surrounding the JFK speech:

One of the key figures coaching Kennedy for his Houston appearance was…John Cogley…. Kennedy had written an article in Look magazine in 1959 [actually, it was an interview with journalist Fletcher Knebel] in which he enunciated the view that for an “officeholder no moral obligation transcends the duty to live up to the Constitution”…. In his Commonweal column, Cogley defended Kennedy, insisting that an “officeholder’s first duty was indeed to the Constitution. If a conflict arose between Catholic morality and the Constitution, a Catholic officeholder should resign,” Cogley wrote [a position Kennedy later famously made his own].

Kennedy read Cogley’s column, and asked him to join his campaign staff. “I don’t think this way of putting it had ever dawned on him…he saw a way out of the bind he had gotten himself into,” Cogley later wrote. Traveling with the future president to Houston, Cogley was charged with putting him through some “instant theological training.” Cogley thought that one remark Kennedy made during their time together was especially revealing: “It is hard for a Harvard man to answer questions in theology. My answers tonight will probably cause heartburn at Fordham and BC [Boston College].”

Despite whatever heartburn Kennedy’s remarks may have produced in those quarters, they did a lot to get him elected president. And Cogley? “History suggests,” Commonweal commented, that although Cogley was right about a lot of things, he “mistook the veneer of Kennedy’s Catholicism for depth, and similarly underestimated the challenge a powerful secularizing culture would present to the coherence and vitality of a church no longer rooted in a separate Catholic subculture.”

So, what did Kennedy say to the ministers a half-century ago in Houston?

Part of it was pandering of the kind politicians running for office frequently indulge in. As a young congressman for the Boston district once represented in the US House of Representatives by his own grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and also by legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley, Kennedy was, in Maier’s words, “a stalwart supporter of the Church.”

Now, to the Houston ministers he proudly cited his “declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools [what would be constitutional was left unsaid, but earlier he’d backed health services, transportation, and textbooks], and against any boycott of the public schools.” He also expressed support for “absolute” separation of church and state.

None of this, however, was the heart of the speech. That distinction goes instead to the text’s powerful thrust toward privatizing religion. Father John Courtney Murray, SJ—the American theologian whose thinking about church-state relations, religious pluralism, and freedom of conscience was soon to be influential at Vatican Council II—called its position “idiocy.”

Kennedy’s privatizing of religion operated on two levels: the macro level of politics and public life, and the private level of individual conscience. In both areas, the message was devastating.

On the public-political level, the text employs the familiar rhetorical device of setting up straw-men in order to knock them down. “I believe,” Kennedy bravely affirmed, “in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source.” But what rational person believes in anything else?

Far more dangerous, however, is Kennedy’s declaration of belief in an America “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” The unspoken but unmistakable subtext of this points to an America where religion has nothing to say to politics and politicians, and churches, docile and domesticated, keep their noses out of public life.

As for conscience, Kennedy delivered this remarkable pledge: “Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision…in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Practically speaking, this reduces the criterion of right and wrong to national interest—a proposition that would have delighted Machiavelli. Still more, the appropriate instrument for determining where national interest lies is said to be the private judgment of a president, unhampered by objective moral principle, moral doctrine, or anything else.

A few years later, commenting on Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, Father Murray said the idea that “I have a right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it” was a “perilous theory” that ended in “subjectivism,” and was not at all what the Council taught.

And, many more years after that, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, justified her support for legal abortion and gay rights by appealing in a 2009 Newsweek interview to that perilous theory: “I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”

History records that JFK’s speech worked. Kennedy won the election, collecting 80 percent of the Catholic vote and becoming, in the words of Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan, a “symbol of success” for his coreligionists.

The race to embrace positions like those that he enunciated in the 1960 Houston text was much sped up by the Supreme Court’s January 1973 abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. Soon the Democratic Party became the party of legal abortion, and Catholic Democrats scrambled to accommodate their views to the new regime of abortion rights.

The intellectual progeny of Kennedy’s speech have been numerous and highly visible.

They include younger brother Ted, successor to Jack’s Senate seat, who had declared himself pro-life before he became a champion of the pro-choicers; Geraldine Ferraro, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s 1984 running-mate, who brought down the wrath of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor on her head by arguing that a Catholic like herself was entitled to be pro-choice; New York Governor Mario Cuomo, often mentioned as a presidential candidate, who argued the “personally opposed” line at length in a 1984 speech at Notre Dame; John Kerry, 2004 Democratic presidential contender, whose memories of having been an altar boy couldn’t conceal his deep ignorance of the Church; and now, of course, Speaker Pelosi, Vice President Joseph Biden, and hundreds of others, among them the bevy of Catholic senators and representatives who supported public funding of elective abortions as part of the Obama administration’s health care “reform.”

It would be a stretch to say Kennedy’s speech was directly to blame for all this. It would also be a stretch to say it played no role. The speech went far toward setting in motion events that in the last half-century have brought the political thinking and behavior of millions of American Catholics to their current confused and problematical state.

Five years after Houston, on December 6, 1965, the Second Vatican Council wound up its work by adopting 2,111 to 251 the famous Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Though sometimes criticized for a too-optimistic tone reflective of the 1960s, it’s a remarkable piece of work all the same. In a key passage, the Council skewers the state of mind the Kennedy speech expressed and also helped encourage.

While conceding the truth of the traditional view that “we have here no lasting city,” the Council nevertheless said:

It is no less mistaken to think that we may immerse ourselves in earthly activities as if these latter were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfillment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations. One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives. (Gaudium et Spes, no. 43)

By coincidence, 1960 also saw the publication of John Courtney Murray’s famous book We Hold These Truths. In the introduction to that seminal work on natural law, religion, and the roots of the American political order, Father Murray noted that the relationships among these things involve questions which “are put with special sharpness to the Catholic intelligence.”

“Not that the questions themselves are embarrassing,” he added, “but that the inner exigencies of the Catholic intelligence are high. The Catholic may not, as others do, merge his religious and his patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other. The simplest solution is not for him. He must reckon with his own tradition of thought, which is wider and deeper than any that America has elaborated. He must also reckon with his own history, which is longer than the brief centuries America has lived.”

Too bad John Cogley didn’t urge Jack Kennedy to do some reckoning with his Catholic tradition on the plane to Houston.

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About Russell Shaw 271 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).