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
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
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
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
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.)