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to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and anti-clericalism as well as its stereotypical, outdated and uncharitable ideas about the Catholic hierarchy and the teachings of the Catholic Church.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.