50 years later, JFK speech part of culture war

February 28, 2012 - 4:47 PM
JFK Speech Santorum

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 1960 black-and-white file photo, President-elect John F. Kennedy holds his first formal news conference since his election at the Hyannis Armory, in Hyannis, Mass. When Rick Santorum recently rebuked Kennedy's 1960 speech on religion, he was repeating a common conservative view that the address did more harm than good. Santorum, competing for conservatives votes in a close GOP presidential primary with Republican Mitt Romney, argued that more religion was needed in American public life. (AP Photo, File)

When Rick Santorum rebuked John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on religion, he was repeating a common conservative view that the address did more harm than good.

In an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week," Santorum, a Roman Catholic Republican, said he "almost threw up" when he read the remarks by Kennedy, who told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Santorum, competing for conservative votes in a close GOP presidential contest with Mitt Romney, argued that more religion was needed in American public life.

"The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country," Santorum said.

Kennedy gave the speech to the mostly Baptist Texas pastors at a time when Protestants openly wondered whether a Catholic U.S. president would take orders from the pope. In what would become a model for generations of American Catholic politicians, Kennedy insisted his policies would be based on his conscience, not church teaching.

"I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office," Kennedy said, just weeks before the general election. "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

The address was widely considered an eloquent repudiation of bias and a landmark of American rhetoric. Kennedy went on to become the first Catholic U.S. president.

Yet, as years passed, the church and society underwent changes that led many Catholics and conservative Christians to conclude they were being pushed from public life. For them, the speech took on new meaning.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended sectarian prayer in public schools and legalized abortion. As a result, many Catholics and other Christians saw themselves surrounded by a hostile culture. At the same time, the global church was opening up to the modern world through the Second Vatican Council, prompting an internal Catholic split over whether the council's reforms were going too far. American Catholics — better educated and more integrated into American life — fractured along religious and political lines. Once a solid bloc of mostly Democratic voters, Catholics became swing voters, and Catholic Republicans, a rarity in Kennedy's day, gained influence.

Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights came under more intense criticism from church leaders. American bishops called a vote for legalized abortion cooperation with evil.

On the defensive, these Catholic lawmakers paraphrased Kennedy. They said Kennedy was arguing that even if faith shapes policy, the outcome still had to be acceptable to the wider public. Former New York Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, in a much-quoted 1984 speech on abortion at the University of Notre Dame spoke of "the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others." Democrat John Kerry, the party's 2004 presidential nominee said: "I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."

For conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians these comments were infuriating. Religion should be the source of an unchanging morality that guides all aspects of life, including governing, they argued. Archbishop Charles Chaput, then head of the Denver archdiocese, in a 2010 speech at Houston Baptist University, called Kennedy's address, "sincere, compelling, articulate and 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," said Chaput, now head of the Philadelphia archdiocese. "Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage."

Mathew Schmalz, professor of religion at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said Santorum, who would be the second Catholic U.S. president if elected in November, is among those who believe the church has surrendered too much to the broader culture and has lost its distinct moral voice.

"When Santorum talks about the Kennedy speech that way, he's obviously making a political point about religion and politics, but he's also making a point about Catholic identity," Schmalz said. "Santorum is part of a very vocal constituency among Catholics, but I would say he's still in the minority."