Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kennedy Mistake - 50 Years Later

September 12, 2010 was the 50th anniversary of Senator John F. Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  I write about it in my most recent book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and call the posture taken by the late president, The Kennedy Mistake (notes omitted):
In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was the Democratic Party’s candidate for the U.S. Presidency. He was to become the first Catholic president in a country whose citizenry had been predominantly Protestant, and pugnaciously anti-Catholic, since its infancy. Many Protestant Christians were concerned that Kennedy’s commitment as a Catholic Christian to the teaching of the church’s Magisterium on a variety of social, moral and political issues would serve as his guide for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. In order to assuage Protestant fears, on September 12, 1960, Senator Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and assured the attendees that nothing of his Catholic faith would play any role in his judgments as occupant of the White House: 
I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views [i.e., religious liberty and church-state separation], in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. 
From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, Senator Kennedy’s speech reads like a complete acquiescence to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and anti-clericalism as well as its stereotypical, outdated and uncharitable ideas about the Catholic hierarchy and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Senator Kennedy could have argued that his Catholicism informs him of certain theological and moral doctrines that will make him a thoughtful and principled president. He could have consulted and mined from the works of Catholic scholars such as Jacques Maritain or John Courtney Murray, both of whom were able defenders of liberal democracy and the natural law that grounds it. In fact, Senator Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, according to an article in The Catholic World Report, “said that he had vetted the Houston speech with . . . Murray, . . . chief architect of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark affirmation of religious freedom. But most historians agree that Murray disapproved of the strident separationism that Kennedy championed.”  Senator Kennedy’s speech was a terrible concession. It played to his audience’s anti-Catholic prejudices while saying that his religious beliefs were so trivial that he would govern exactly the same if they were absent.


Neil Parille said...

I don't necessarily support what Kennedy said, on the other hand no one was arguing for same sex marriage and legalized abortion in 1960. Whether Nixon or Kennedy was elected wouldn't have changed these things.

Wasn't Murray silenced by the Vatican for his support of religious liberty?

Constantine said...


Your take on history is quite novel and a little disconcerting. And I am not trying to goad you here but just to express the genuine frustration I feel at how very misleading - I think - your post is!

For example, when you write, “from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century…” you skew the historical context immeasurably. There could not be a greater, starker, stronger, deeper contrast than between the post-Vatican II “21st century” and 1960 “Vatican I era” in which Kennedy lived as a Catholic. And to wrench Kennedy’s speech out of the context of 1960 does violence to your conclusions.

How Kennedy could have “ mined from the works of Catholic scholars such as … John Courtney Murray” is very troubling. Nobody was allowed to “mine” from Murray’s work during that period. Murray’s superiors in the Vatican prohibited much of his publishing after 1955 – the exact period leading up to the Kennedy Speech. They even forced him to renege on publishing contracts he had. So the only thing Kennedy could have “mined” was the highly censored material that was allowed to see the light of day!

And even if he could have “mined” Murray’s work, the mere activity of it would have made him precisely the sort of bad Catholic you would complain about because he would have opposed Rome.

How exactly did Murray run afoul of the Vatican?

Because in 1955 – just five years before Kennedy’s speech – Murray made an off-hand comment in a speech at Catholic University that there seemed to be a discrepancy between Pius XII’s Ci Riesce and the official hardline position of the church as expressed by the head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani. Ottaviani had made a speech in 1953 declaring the official Catholic position on church-state relations to be “that only the true religion should be recognized, since all others are subject to the rule that “error has not rights.”” Ottaviani was just carrying the banner of Leo XIII who had declared in his encyclical, Longinqua Oceani ,

“…it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.”

That was the official Catholic position at the time of Kennedy’s speech, Frank. That the government should properly be subservient to the “one true religion”; it was published in Rome’s “irreformable” documents and espoused by the highest members of the Curia in public speeches. In fact, “Americanism” since the time of Leo is a heresy!

So to say, “But most historians agree that Murray disapproved of the strident separationism that Kennedy championed” is further misleading.

Here’s what he actually said:

“I do not indeed want the American situation canonized as ‘ideal’. It would be enough if it could be defended as legitimate in principle…” (Pelotte, Donald. “John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict”: Paulist Press, 1975, p. 38)

“Legitimate in principle” is a long way from Longinqua and a lot closer to what Kennedy said.

So the nub is that Kennedy did the only thing he could do and still be elected – he had to distance himself from the official hardline Catholic position extant in 1960. If he had not made his religious beliefs seem “trivial” he would have been giving public support for the subordiation of the American State to Rome. For Kennedy to say, “his Catholicism informs him of certain theological and moral doctrines” in the context of 1960 would have required him to subordinate to Rome – for those were the “theological and moral doctrines” of 1960.

Context is critical.