What JFK really said about separating church from state

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960 — the speech that Rick Santorum said made him “want to throw up” — was a turning point in American history.

By allaying long-standing Protestant fears about the prospect of a Roman Catholic in the White House, Kennedy paved the way for future Catholic candidates like, well, Rick Santorum, to run for national office. Rather than condemn Kennedy’s speech, perhaps Santorum should say “thank you.”

Consider that in 1959, the year before Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, 25% of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic, according to a Gallup poll. By August 1961, that number had fallen to 13%. And today, public opposition to the prospect of a Catholic president is a mere 7%.

Without Kennedy’s historic breakthrough, Santorum might well face today the kind of prejudice that still hobbles the candidacy of Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the nomination. Opposition to a Mormon president remains stubbornly high, with 22% of voters telling Gallup they would not support a Mormon for president – a percentage that has held steady since Gallup first asked the question in 1967.

Santorum appears to be sickened by a speech that Kennedy never delivered. When pressed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” Santorum said he rejected Kennedy’s argument for “absolute” separation of church and state because “to say that people of faith have no role in the public square, absolutely that makes me want to throw up.”

Although later he said he wished he “had that particular line back,” Santorum continued to attack JFK’s position. Following his advice to “read the speech,” I am hard pressed to find anything in Kennedy’s definition of church-state separation that supports keeping people of faith out of the public square.

On the contrary, Kennedy did not back away from his Catholic faith, declaring that he would not “disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.” In the unlikely event that a conflict arose between following his conscience and following the national interest, Kennedy promised to “resign the office.”

Although Kennedy believed Americans are free to bring their faith into the public square, he warned against elected officials’ using the engine of government to impose their religion on the nation. This is the absolute separation of church and state that Kennedy endorsed in his speech — a separation that ensures government neutrality toward religion and religious autonomy from government:

“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.”

By taking his case directly to Protestant ministers — some of the most skeptical, if not hostile, voices challenging his candidacy — Kennedy sought to overcome the historic Protestant fear that a Catholic could never support separating church from state.

Contrary to Santorum’s reading of the speech, Kennedy articulated a vision of America where separating the institutions of church and state is the foundation of religious liberty.  By ensuring that the government does not take sides in religion, the First Amendment levels the playing field for people of all faiths and none.

“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,” Kennedy told the ministers, “where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.”

We are not there yet.  But thanks to John Kennedy, we moved one step closer to the First Amendment vision of full religious freedom.  For that, Rick Santorum — and all Americans — should be very grateful.

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