Cardinal Timothy Dolan guests on “Face the Nation (Shaped by JFK’s 1960 Speech)”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan was a guest on “Face the Nation” on Easter Sunday and the host, Bob Schieffer, immediately got to the issue that is weighing on the hearts and minds of every serious person in April 2012: Camelot! Well, sort of:

BOB SCHIEFFER: I want to talk a little politics with you, your eminence back in 1960.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: I’m not surprised.

My guess is that Cardinal Dolan figured there were three places the interview could go: down the “Why does Catholic Church hate women?” highway, up the “When will the Catholic Church catch up with the times?” river, or over to the “Didn’t President Kennedy establish for all eternity the Catholic understanding of ‘State first, Church silent’?” grill. Considering Kennedy was murdered nearly fifty years ago and that his already flimsy reputation as upstanding, morally superior politician/POTUS has been badly bruised in recent years, the third option was likely the best for Schieffer to pull out of his fraying bag of journalistic talking points. And so he did:

BOB SCHIEFFER: When John Kennedy became the first Catholic President, he made a speech during the campaign, because he said flatly, he wanted people to know and he wanted to assure them that he thought there was a separation between church and state. Here is the way he put it.


JOHN F. KENNEDY (September 12, 1960): 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.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Now people in both parties have referred back to that over the years as– as a good definition of church and state, but during this campaign year, one of the Republican candidates, Rick Santorum, said this about it.

RICK SANTORUM (November 11, 2011): If I had the opportunity to read the speech, I almost threw up. He should read the speech. It’s– in my opinion it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square. And he threw faith under the bus in that speech.

Which led to a good question from Schieffer: “Your eminence, where do you think the line should be between church and state? Is there, should there be a separation?” It was a wide open question, with many possible answers. Cardinal Dolan responded:

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: You bet there should. You bet there should. That’s good, that separation between church and state is good, not only for the United States, it’s also good for the church. I’d find myself and give me a second to explain this, Bob, I’d find myself, believe it or not, agreeing with both of them. I would cheered what John Kennedy said, he was right, and I would– I would find myself among those applauding that speech. That having been said, I would also say that Senator Santorum had a good point because, unfortunately, what John Kennedy said in September of 1960 to the Baptist Ministerial Alliance in Texas has been misinterpreted to mean that a separation of church and state also means a cleavage a wall between one’s faith and one’s political decisions, between one’s– one’s moral focus and between one– the way one might act in the political sphere. I don’t think John Kennedy meant that and as you know recent scholarship has shown that John Kennedy was very inspired by vision, by character, by virtue, let’s call that faith, let’s call that morals. So I don’t think John Kennedy meant a cleavage between faith and politics. He did mean a wall between state and church, and I would applaud that one, but I would agree with Senator Santorum that unfortunately that has been misrepresented to mean that faith has no place in the public square. That, I would, with Senator Santorum say is a misinterpretation not only what Senator Kennedy meant but with what the American genius is all about.

I’m a big admirer of Cardinal Dolan, but I’m not fully taken with that answer. The big problem is it simply doesn’t do justice to what Kennedy actually said. Consider these two quotes from the Houston speech:

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 – 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.

I believe 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 – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. …

I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me. 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 these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

As Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote in her December 2008 Catholic World Report essay, “The Enduring Costs of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise”, Kennedy’s remarks did not go over well with all Catholics:

Catholics, meanwhile, had mixed reactions. Kennedy already had the Catholic vote locked up, and he proceeded to win the Presidency in a squeaker against Richard Nixon with the support of four in every five Catholic voters. But historians say many Catholic bishops secretly feared a Kennedy presidency after noticing his desperation to prove his independence from the Church, as demonstrated by his Houston remarks and hard-line positions against Church-endorsed policies.

For his part, Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen later said that he had vetted the Houston speech with Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, a leading American Catholic intellectual and chief architect of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark affirmation of religious freedom. But most historians agree that Murray disapproved of the strident separationism that Kennedy championed. Murray did not believe that the Constitution called for a public square stripped of all religious rhetoric and arguments. Nor did he accept the privatized view of religion that restricted its implications to home and hearth.

As Jesuit historian Massa has noted, Murray endorsed a public Catholicism that allowed Catholic politicians and voters to engage in faith-based social activism and defend their religiously-derived principles in the public square. This public Catholicism was not consistent with Kennedy’s pledge to expunge all traces of religious influence from his governing decisions. As Murray wrote in a 1967 letter to a friend, Kennedy had been “far more of a separationist than I am.”

The fact is, Kennedy’s words can very easily (and rightly, I think) be interpreted as endorsing the sort of scorched and barren secular public square that has increasingly expanded over the past fifty years. And Cardinal Dolan was mindful, of course, of this fact:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you think there is too much religion in politics today?

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: No, I don’t think so at all. I think– I think politics, just like business, just like education, just like art, just like culture, only benefits when– when– when religion, when morals, when faith has a place there. I think the American– the public square in the United States is always enriched whenever people approach it, when they’re inspired by their– their deepest held convictions. And on the other hand, Bob, I think the public square is impoverished when people might be coerced to put a piece of duct tape over their mouth, keeping them from bringing their deepest held convictions to the– to the conversation.

Of course, there has to be the standard, template question about religion staying out of politics—a difficult task, frankly, when nearly everything under the sun is now considered political and within the political perview:

BOB SCHIEFFER: –new Pew poll out that says sixty percent of Catholics say that churches and other houses of worship should just totally steer clear of politics.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: Yeah. I do worry about that, Bob. And this– this is a good place for me to– to remind everybody, we didn’t ask for this fight, I don’t enjoy it at all, I wish I was on here FACE THE NATION answering other questions and you probably do, too. We didn’t ask for the fight but we’re not going to back away from it. What I’d say is this: Yeah, I don’t think religion should be too involved in politics but I also don’t think the government and politics should be overly involved in the church, and that’s our problem here. You’ve got a dramatic, radical intrusion of a government bureaucracy into the internal life of the church that bothers me. So hear me say, hey, I’d like to back away from this, I got other things to worry about and bigger fish to fry than this. Our problem is the government is intruding into the– into the life of faith and in– in the church that they shouldn’t be doing. That’s– that’s our– our read on this.

Cardinal Dolan’s statement here is a strong one, and I’m thankful to see it. For folks such as Schieffer, the “Church vs. state” issue is always a one-way street; such folks see theocracies and witch burnings around every corner, even while the federal government’s control over the economy, commerce, health care, speech, marriage, and nearly everything else has expanded dramatically in just the past few decades (or past three years, even, if you wish). The era of radical seculization has not just begun—it it now up to speed, moving along with a populsive, if also perverse, logic. Here is Campbell again:

It is possible that Kennedy was more the victim of poor catechesis than the willing agent of a secular shift in American politics. It is also likely that his Houston speech was motivated more by political pragmatism than by theological conviction. Whatever his motives, his speech and subsequent political victory marked the beginning of a new era of secularization in American politics and shaped a new generation of Catholic politicians, many of whom modeled their own compromise between faith and politics on his. Kennedy’s electoral success, coupled with postwar affluence and drastic changes in the Catholic Church that followed the Second Vatican Council, marked the end of the Catholic ghetto and the coming of age of American Catholicism. But the cultural and political victory that Kennedy had won for Catholics came at a steep price: The creation of what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has called “the naked public square.”

It is a sanitized space where political arguments are unwelcome if they spring from religious conviction, appeals to once self-evident truths are neither embraced nor challenged but reflexively dismissed as mere opinion, and debates about life’s most fundamental questions are ruled out of bounds before they can begin. In the naked public square, the division between faith and reason, God and man, private truth and the public ethic is absolute and impermeable.

Read her entire essay.

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.