The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 22, 2000 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Ideas about religion and politics change in last 40 years

John Kennedy vowed to keep religion and politics separate in 1960 address

By John Huebscher

Sen. Joe Lieberman's comments about the need for public officials and others to be more willing to speak openly about their religious convictions has renewed interest in the link between religious values and policies that define or regulate our social relationships. This is perhaps the most attention paid to the topic since John Kennedy sought the presidency in 1960.

Kennedy addressed the religious issue very directly on Sept. 12, 1960, in an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group consisting mostly of Southern Baptists and Evangelical leaders.

Many credited that speech with putting Southern Protestants and others at ease with the idea of a Catholic President and enabling Kennedy to carry the Southern and border states he needed to win.

This speech makes interesting reading today and illustrates how much has changed in 40 years.

This year, Sen. Lieberman's candidacy and his contention that religion has a proper role in public discourse helps Democrats appeal to religious conservatives and erase the politically damaging perception that they are uneasy with blending religious rhetoric in policy debates. Kennedy, on the other hand, had to assure his audience that he would not mix his faith with his politics.

Kennedy was applauded in Houston because he affirmed that he believed in an America where neither Catholic prelates nor Protestant ministers would tell their parishioners how to vote. One can't help but wonder how the Reverends Falwell and Robertson would feel about that today.

Kennedy affirmed that he believed in an America where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind. This, too, went over well that day in Houston.

Today, one finds a similar disavowal of bloc voting in the U.S. bishops' document Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium. At the same time, one is forced to wonder how Kennedy and those who applauded him would regard efforts to mobilize Christian voters with voter guides.

Kennedy also made it clear that he opposed formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican and against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools. That, too, was well received by the ministers. Indeed, a stance in favor of either would have cost him the election.

In the years since, however, the U.S. has established diplomatic ties with the Holy See and the First Amendment seems to have survived. Similarly, government help to children who without regard to whether they attend public or religious schools has been upheld by the courts and welcomed by the religious descendants of those who feared Kennedy would back such policies. Times do change.

Kennedy did not have to face the abortion issue in 1960. But he did affirm that his position on birth control, divorce, gambling and other issues, would be determined by what his conscience told him was in the national interest, not by religious pressures.

He added, however, that if his conscience should ever conflict with the national interest, he would resign the Presidency. This too, was widely accepted at the time. Whether he would have resigned if confronted with such a test or tried to argue that he could separate his private conscience from his public duty is a question that can never be answered.

Nor is it possible to gaze ahead 40 years to the election of 2040 so see how our national debate over religion and politics will be framed then. But a look back to 1960 suggests that predictions based on how people talk and act today may not be helpful.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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