After 50 Years: JFK and Church-State Separation

It was September 10, 1960, that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Houston ministers. Lots of folks have been taking the occasion of the 50th anniversary to argue that Kennedy was wrong. Rick Santorum did so when he was in town a couple weeks ago, as Charles Chaput did earlier this year. They claim Kennedy was excluding religion from the public sphere–that he wanted to create a secular state like Turkey or France. They suggest that there was an irrational prejudice against Catholics that Kennedy had to confront, but that he went too far.

First, let’s consider what Kennedy said.

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.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

He didn’t hide the fact that he was a Catholic. He didn’t say people of faith should be silent (he encouraged the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance). But he did say he would not allow the Catholic hierarchy to dictate national policy to him. He noted areas where he had voted contrary to the positions of the Catholic hierarchy–on aid to parochial schools and an ambassador to the Vatican.

Why was there concern? Was it just because of irrational prejudice? No. It was based on statements that had been made in the past by popes and prelates–and not in the far distant past, but in the century prior. I summarize some of them here.

The Catholic Church believes that it speaks Truth. It believes itself to have the Fullness of Truth. It believes that it should be the moral conscience of all states. This has never changed. But increasingly in recent years we have seen some bishops (and more conservative lay people) express the view that Catholic politicians who do not advance the Catholic Church’s interests should be excommunicated. We’ve seen high ranking prelates speak disparagingly of the American heritage of separation of church and state. Catholic bishops still present to legislatures their agenda, and expect Catholic politicians to assist them in passing it.

John F. Kennedy’s words from 50 years ago are not outdated or outmoded. They sound of renewed relevance in an America where other minorities are feared today. They remind us of the wisdom and the genius of our founders, and of the lamp of liberty that it is our duty to uphold. They show the courage of one man who was willing to stand up to power and say to his own prelates, “We respect your opinion, but in this nation, that’s all it is–your opinion.”

3 thoughts on “After 50 Years: JFK and Church-State Separation

  1. “Catholic politicians who do not advance the Catholic Church’s interests should be excommunicated.”

    I have to quibble with this point, Bill. You are glossing over several important distinctions, and you suggest that this is not reasonable when I think it is (though I’m not sure it is practical).

    1.) Yes, members of the Church have lobbied for its “interests”, but as far as I can tell, today “excommunication” has only been brought up with regard to abortion and other issues that are considered by many to be intrinsically evil and grave. And why shouldn’t evil be confronted? People clamor that Nazism wasn’t sufficiently confronted when its abuses become evident. You praised Bishop Soto for confronting NACDLGM in 2008.

    2.) The other is the issue over public scandal. When a public figure claims publicly to represent the Church and to speak on behalf of the Church and on behalf of Catholics only to turn around and publicly oppose the Church on issues of intrinsically evil, grave matter, the Church has every right to respond for the good of souls.

    3.) Whether or not excommunication should be applied is under debate. That you mention “some bishops” here should be underscored. The reality is that we have bishops and canonists disagreeing with other bishops and canonists as to whether this is the right course of action to take.

  2. advancing the church’s interests, yes.
    Advancing morality, no, if for no other reason that two thousand years of human experience prove it works (4000years, if you presume the ten commandments owe a lot to Egypt and Sumar).

    But prejudice is a way of silencing this wisdom with a soundbite.

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