On Sept. 12, 1960, then-Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy stood before a gathering of Baptists and other pastors in hopes of convincing Protestant Christians that the nation was ready for a Catholic president. Fifty years later, many Baptists and Catholics actively reject the standard for religion and politics that Kennedy advocated and that calmed the fears of many Baptists in 1960.

With a presidential election literally hanging in the balance, Kennedy’s speech quieted the concerns of many Protestant Christians and opened the door for him to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Without this speech, Kennedy likely would have suffered the fate of Al Smith in 1928 and found the presidency remained restricted to Protestant Christians.

During his speech, Kennedy noted, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” Thus, he asked Americans to judge his candidacy on the issues that really mattered, and he urged the Protestant ministers in the audience to join him in supporting the freedoms and rights of all Americans.

“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,” Kennedy argued, “where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

A key to the speech’s success was Kennedy’s affirmation of the historic principle of the separation of church and state, since many Protestant leaders feared Kennedy would submit himself and the nation to the Pope. Although many American Catholic leaders had long embraced American principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state, the Catholic Church as a whole would not officially endorse such a perspective until the reforms of Vatican II that occurred later in the 1960s.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy declared, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the President – should he be Catholic – how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed,” Kennedy added, “in other years it has been – and may someday be again – a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you – until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

Although Kennedy clearly advocated his support for religious liberty in terms that aligned with historic Baptist principles, many of the Baptist ministers in the audience sharply challenged Kennedy during the question-and-answer session following his speech. Several of the Protestant questioners seemed to fear Kennedy did not actually mean what he said about the separation of church and state. Among those asking questions were the pastors of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, South Main Baptist Church in Houston and First Baptist Church of Houston.

E.H. Westmoreland, pastor of South Main Baptist Church, asked Kennedy to respond to a resolution that had recently been passed by the Baptist Pastors Conference of St. Louis. The resolution noted that Baptists “plead with Senator John F. Kennedy, as the person presently concerned in this matter, to appeal to Cardinal Cushing, Mr. Kennedy’s own hierarchical superior in Boston, to present to the Vatican Mr. Kennedy’s sincere statement relative to the separation of Church and State in the United States and religious freedom as represented in the Constitution of the United States, in order that the Vatican may officially authorize such a belief for all Roman Catholics in the United States.”

Kennedy responded: “May I just say that as I do not accept the right of any, as I said, ecclesiastical official, to tell me what I shall do in the sphere of my public responsibility as an elected official, I do not propose also to ask Cardinal Cushing to ask the Vatican to take some action. I do not propose to interfere with their free right to do exactly what they want.”

Kennedy’s speech ultimately worked to help him narrowly defeat then-Vice President Richard Nixon less than two months later. Although many Protestant Christians remained opposed to Kennedy because of his Catholicism, enough were persuaded not to vote against him on religious grounds.

Fifty years later, some Catholics and Baptists suggest Kennedy got it wrong when he adopted a fairly Baptist approach to church-state relations.

In 2007, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler argued that Kennedy set the wrong standard on religion and politics. Mohler’s approach placed him at odds with the Baptists who questioned Kennedy in 1960.

“I think John F. Kennedy set an unfortunate example when he told a group of Baptist preachers in Houston in 1960 that his Catholicism would have virtually nothing to do with his presidential decision-making,” Mohler wrote. “How could that be? I want to know how a political candidate makes decisions, weighs priorities and gains strength in crisis.”

In March, Houston Baptist University hosted Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver, to deliver a speech critical of Kennedy’s approach to religion and politics. It was co-sponsored by the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World at the University of St. Thomas. Houston Baptist’s president, Robert Sloan, previously led Baylor University.

“It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong,” Chaput declared about Kennedy’s speech. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely ‘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. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”

The two co-sponsoring organizations for the speech hosted, along with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a speech last week by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania. Santorum, a Catholic who is considering running for president in 2012, also criticized the ideals Kennedy presented in his Houston address.

The American Rhetoric website ranked Kennedy’s address as the ninth most important speech of the 20th century. Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, called Kennedy’s speech the most significant statement on religion in American life since James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance – a 1785 document about church-state separation and religious liberty.

Kennedy’s Houston address clearly changed American history by helping him overcome questions about his Catholicism. Fifty years later, however, the message of Kennedy’s speech is being challenged not only by Catholic leaders, but also by Baptists and others whom Kennedy targeted in the address with his praise for separation of church and state.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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