Kennedy’s Houston Speech After 50 Years

It was fifty years ago this September that John F. Kennedy spoke to some ministers in Houston:

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 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.

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 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.

But 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.

Last night, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver gave a talk at Houston Baptist University, “The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life.” Kennedy was wrong, he said.

He had one purpose. He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive. Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected. And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong. 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 life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

Chaput does not believe in separation of church and state. He claims that “America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government.”

He sees the mission of the church, “to make disciples of all nations,” to mandate Christian involvement in politics, guiding the moral destiny of the nation, sanctifying its public life.

… [Jesus] asks us to make disciples of all nations. That means we have a duty to preach Jesus Christ. We have a mandate to share his Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love. These are mission words; action words. They’re not optional. And they have practical consequences for the way we think, speak, make choices and live our lives, not just at home but in the public square. Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private. And we need to think about that simple fact in light of an anniversary. …

We need to live and prove our love by our actions, not just in our personal and family lives, but also in the public square. Therefore Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God. …

… Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify the world as his agents. To do that work, [Christians of all denominations] need to be one. Not “one” in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended. This is what Jesus meant when he said: “I do not pray for these only, but also those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17:20-21).

We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws – deeply shaped by Christian faith. It can be so again. But we will do that together, or we won’t do it at all. We need to remember the words of St. Hilary from so long ago: “Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt“, they are one, who are wholly for each other (9). May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ – so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.

3 thoughts on “Kennedy’s Houston Speech After 50 Years

  1. As a Catholic, I do believe our religion has a political vocation. This is because the message of Jesus, while not essentially political, nonetheless has political implications.

    I do not think the voice of religion should be excluded from the public sphere on the basis that it speaks to merely private concerns.

    That being said, I do believe that religion has to recognize that it is one voice among the several that make up the democratic conversation. Once we believe that our preaching of the truth gives a right to override the will of the people, we set out down a road that has already been dreadfully explored.

    We are owed the right to speak, to state our case and be heard, but nothing more.

    • I’d finesse your last sentence to note that the right to speak is something belonging to individuals (including individuals who associate together in groups). It is because we are citizens that we have that right, not because we are a member of a church (or a union, or a corporation). And I agree that what we believe as Christians does have political implications, as I noted in a sermon of mine I linked to a few days ago. What we need to recall, though, is both Jesus statement, “My kingdom is not of this world,” as well as the Biblical dictum, “Put not your trust in princes.”

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