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Maurice Timothy ReidyMarch 26, 2012

Is Rick Santorum right about John F. Kennedy?

The Republican presidential candidate was widely criticized for his unscripted remark that after reading Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on religion and politics, he “almost threw up.” Santorum objected to what he took to be Kennedy’s argument that religion is a private matter and should not influence political decisions.

For many in the media, Kennedy’s stand on church and state has become, well, an article of faith. The New York Times called Santorum’s response to Kennedy’s “remarkable” speech to the Houston Ministerial Association “one of the lowest points of modern day electoral politics.”

Yet there was one man who knew that Kennedy’s thoughts on religion and politics would be controversial, and in fact, could cause gastro-intestinal distress. That man was Kennedy himself.

“It is hard for a Harvard man to answer questions on theology,” Kennedy quipped following a controversial 1959 interview with Look magazine. “I imagine my answers will cause heartburn at Fordham and B.C.”

In that interview, Kennedy sought to distance his role as a public servant from his private identity as a Catholic. His speech drew sharp criticism, and as a result he was better prepared for his September 1960 speech in Houston. Commonweal’s John Cogley and John Courtney Murray, S.J., tutored him before the talk.

The legacy and content of the Houston speech is still pored over in Catholic circles, notably at a symposium at Fordham University in 2008 in advance of the 50th anniversary of the speech. A review of the transcript of that event reveals why Kennedy’s remarks generate strong responses from readers like Senator Santorum.

Part of what rankles Kennedy’s critics, surely, is what appears to be a less than enthusiastic embrace of the Catholic faith. At Fordham, the social scientist William Galston quoted Arthur Schlesinger: “Kennedy’s religion was humane rather than doctrinal. He was a Catholic as Franklin Roosevelt was an Episcopalian....” Kennedy was not publicly Catholic in the way Santorum is publicly Catholic. In fact, in his public approach to his faith, Kennedy is closer to Mitt Romney than any contemporary Catholic politician.

Galston argued that Kennedy was in favor of a kind of “triple separation.” The first separation, between church and state, is largely uncontroversial today, though it is often conflated with the second—between religion and politics. The third separation concerned democracy and God.

Was Kennedy arguing that religion had no place in the public sphere? Kennedy called his faith a “private affair” and said it did not influence his public views. “There is no indication that JFK regarded the church as having any rightful authority over his public conduct,” Galston said.

Another panelist, the ethicist Shaun Casey, found a clearer connection between Kennedy’s faith and his public office. Casey cited the question and answer session following the Houston talk. “The exchanges there…helped knock down the argument that somehow Kennedy was declaring his Catholicism to be purely private, and hence irrelevant,” Casey said. Kennedy mentioned more than once that his views represented “the great majority of American Catholics.”

So 50 years later ambiguity persists. Santorum’s remarks, though crude, were a visceral display of a debate that remains unsettled. At the Fordham gathering, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir explained why, on the question of religion and politics, a delicate hand is required: “Religion has a place in the larger political argument, but it is not the totality of the argument, and how you define it and articulate it then becomes crucial.”

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Dan Hannula
11 years 11 months ago
It would be interesting to find out what Daniel Carroll would think of all this. He was the Jesuit educated "founding father", whose younger brother, John, was the first Bishop in the United States and founder of Georgetown.  As a Jesuit educated signer of the consittution, it might be good to know his thoughts. He and Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania were the only Catholics to sign the Constitution.
Dan Hannula
11 years 11 months ago
By the way-I forgot to add;  John Carroll, that first Bishop, was also Jesuit educated and worked to help found the new nation as well.  Interesting fact; the Bishop of Quebec, Jean-Olivier Briand, excommunicated Carroll for his efforts.   I guess he thought John was cooperating with evil.  The more things change the more they remain the same.  Love those Jebbies!
11 years 11 months ago
What disturbs me most about Rick Santorum's remark about President Kennedy was its tone-utterly and self-righteously dismissive, dripping with disgust.  I also thought he sounded arrogant.  The relationship of one's faith to one's politics is a complicated issue. Being guided by one's faith in making political choices is not the same thing as trumpeting the hierarchy's policy poisitions on some things (abortion, marriage) and not others (immigration, the death penalty, welfare).  Too many conservative Catholics want to reduce this complicated issue to the argument "We (Republican) Catholics who want to make illegal abortion and contraception and denounce divorce and sex outside of marriage are the REAL Catholics-regardless of our positions on other issues.  Those  (Democrat) 'catholycs' who whine all the time about welfare and immigration and poor people are fake 'catholycs.'  it's clear that if you are not in support of the political policy of an all-out ban on abortion (and contraception) you are therefore in favor of abortion."  [NB conservative Catholics LOVE these tactics: (a) using scare quotes around the word "catholic," (b) lower-casing and underlining the "c" and replacing the final "i" with a "y" to mock the use of the word "womyn" by some feminists] Recently their argument seems to include:  "You are also not a real Catholic unless you admit that President Obama is waging an all-out war against religion in general and Catholics in  particular." Sad that whereas once President Kennedy was a sign of pride for all Catholics in the United States, (despite his sins-and we are all sinners) he is now denounced by conservative Catholics as the "Pervert in Chief" (http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=26421) by the self-proclaimed Catholic Vote, which routinely decides, without authority, who is and isn't a Catholic.
Carol DeChant
11 years 11 months ago
The circumstances were vastly difference for the man who was to be the first Catholic president. A consortium of respected Protestant ministers (led by Norman Vincent Peale) voiced objection to the possibility of a Catholic President on the grounds that his primary loyalty would be to Rome. Today, we have legal abortion, a Catholic Vice President, and the very Protestants who once believed Catholics harbored guns in their churches hoping for a violent take-over of America now support Pro-Life Catholics. Most surprising of all is that Santorum is only one of the Catholics running today (AND that the other one is the thrice-married Newt Gingrich!). Not to mention that the leading GOP contender is a Mormon. All of these facing a sitting African-American President. No one in 1960s could have imagined such a future. It seems Santorum has little grasp of this history, or of the anti-Catholicism Kennedy faced in his era.
11 years 11 months ago
How any article about Kennedy's Houston speech, addressed to what was obviously a hostile audience, could fail to acknowledge the fact that Kennedy stated he would resign from the Presidency should he discover that his role as President and his Faith clashed raises issues of probity regarding the author. It is, I believe, the only time in American history any Presidential candidate made such an audacious statement. And, it was no off-hand remark. In fact, anyone viewing the speech once again must marvel at how taut and somewhat nervous Kennedy appeared while delivering it. Despite his well-deserved reputation as the greatest political speaker of the 20th century, surpassing even FDR, Kennedy referred to his prepared notes more often during this one speech than he did for all of the speeches he gave during his 1000 days in office combined. 
Thomas Farrell
11 years 11 months ago
I'm with JFK all the way on this issue.

I hope that Rick Santorum is not elected president of the United States.
11 years 11 months ago
My comment is to share with America the letter I sent to the Syracuse Post-Standard last Sunday:

I commend the Post-Standard for publishing "Kennedy, Religion and Politics" in the March 11 Opinion section.  I was curious to see what JFK actually said that precipitated such a vehement response from Mr. Santorum.  I am a practicing Catholic, too, (as Santorum is) but agree with JFK's opinion on separation of church and state in America as being absolute.  I also believe that this protection of religious freedom is an essential element of a democracy.  
I read the text of Kennedy's speech carefully and am puzzled that Santorum concluded that Kennedy was indicating "that people of faith have no role in the public square".
I believe that Kennedy's most noteworthy actions as president were faith inspired and gave him the courage to attempt to extricate us from the Vietnam debacle and to avoid a second attack on Cuba and ultimately nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He was aware that this courageous pursuit of peace, and also of social justice through the Civil Rights Movement, was not what the "powers that be" wanted, and that it might cost him his life, and it did.  I believe Santorum's interpretation of Kennedy is rash and unfounded.  I'm also dismayed that as a former member of the U.S. Senate he doesn't know the real truth.
Paul Kelley
11 years 11 months ago
I am shocked that America would even ask the question whether Santorum was right. He was clearly wrong. I do recall that Jacqueline Kennedy once said that she did not know why many people were upset that Kennedy, being a Catholic, might become president because, as I recall the substance of her reported statement, it's not that he's such a good Catholic. However, I believe he was absolutely correct in his speach and that even if the topic warranted a more philosophical discussion, Kennedy's analysis was correct. Our government is based on the absolute separation of church and state and precisely because of this the Catholic Churchhas prospered. If Santoruum disagrees he should not be putting himself forward as candidate for president. I suggest that a more relevant question is whether Bishop Dolan is not wrong in alleging that the administration has proposed a regulation in violation of his conscience or is waging a war onreligion.

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