John F. Kennedy’s address to the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston, September 12, 1960, during his presidential campaign.
With Americans marking the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, and the heated culture war debate over construction of mosques and the issue of religious liberty, a different sort of anniversary occurs.
John F. Kennedy was in the midst of a heated presidential campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon. Polls showed that substantial numbers of Americans were concerned over Kennedy’s Roman Catholic affiliation; not since the 1928 campaign of Al Smith, also a Catholic, had religion played so defining and poignant a role at the ballot box. Democrats had relied on the mostly-Protestant South as a reliable bastion of electoral support. That “Southern Strategy” was now in doubt, as the traditional fault lines between Catholics and Protestants suddenly meant that millions of voters would cross party lines amidst fears of “Popery” and possible Vatican control of the government.
Adding to that pervasive angst were statements from some church officials that “it was time to elect a Roman Catholic president.” Other issues were front-and-center, too, many related to the separation of church and state, Should “parochaid,” government assistance to Catholic schools, be permitted? Were Roman Catholics — like Sen. Kennedy — more loyal to the Vatican than to the Constitution? Would a Catholic president provide the Holy See with a new and dangerous level of political influence?
Kennedy, the scion of a wealthy patrician New England family, had established a reputation as a staunch anti-communist and a political moderate. One biographer described the young Massachusetts Senator as “a staunch supporter of the (Catholic) Church.” Indeed, questions about the vast economic and political influence of the Vatican was a common theme in political narratives. In the late 1940s, a host of publications documented there Holy See’s role in America; most notable was Paul Blanchard’s series of carefully-researched articles appearing in the liberal Nation Magazine , which became the basis for the 1948 book “American Freedom and Catholic Power.”
Unlike today, the phrase “separation of church and state” was not something taken lightly by either political leaders or news media, but rather a concept that was rightly seen as the bedrock of the American political order.
With just two months until the November, 1960 election, Rev. Norman Vincent Peale — a prominent Protestant clergyman and author of the popular self-held book “The Power of Positive Thinking “: — convened a group of Protestant leaders who doubted Kennedy’s
loyalty to the United States over his religious ties to the Vatican. The Holy See, according to Peale’s group, intended “to demolish America’s wall of separation between church and state.”
Their manifesto, of course, was sectarian and self-serving. The “Protestant Establishment” had enjoyed a sordid, intimate relationship with government in the United States. Public schools still used the Bible as a devotional and instructional text; a number of states required a belief in god in order for someone to hold an office of public trust; and in the wake of World War II, huge swaths of land had been donated or sold off at discount prices to religious groups. Churches were tax exempt, and organized religion enjoyed a battery of other privileges which, years later, would be documented in books like Madalyn O’Hair’s “Freedom Under Siege.”
Equally distressing was the fact that while Peale and his associates loudly denounced Kennedy as an opponent of the Establishment Clause, the mainline Protestant denominations opposed any attempt to curtail the “special rights” and privileges of organized religion, or secularize the American public square.
Kennedy, knowing that he had to respond to such charges, decided to address the Houston Ministerial Association meeting on September 12, 1860. Kennedy reversed his previous support for government aid to private and parochial schools, and announced that he opposed further diplomatic tie with the Vatican It was a risky, delicate political move. His campaign staff knew well the importance of a heavy turn-out of Catholic voters.
In the end, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. His speech, criticized widely even in his campaign organization and stable of key advisers, put the debate over church-state separation into the front ranks of American discourse.
It remains there today, a key element in the culture-wars pitting secularism and freedom against the tyrannical establishment of religion.