Another Perspective

Kennedy’s Wall

A rare exchange sheds light on his faith.

By 11.26.13


Rick Santorum's grandparents had three photographs hanging on a wall in their home when young Rick was growing up: Jesus, the pope, and John F. Kennedy. Back then, Santorum recalled in an October 2011 speech to College of Saint Mary Magdalen students, "Kennedy was an icon." Later, after reading one of Kennedy's speeches, Santorum "almost threw up."

Kennedy's September 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association "was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square," Santorum griped. "He threw faith under the bus."

But had the former presidential hopeful read about what came after Kennedy's infamous speech, he would have acknowledged that there were many who were far more gag-worthy than Kennedy.

There is no question that Kennedy should have known that his statement that "the separation of church and state is absolute" would have consequences beyond assuring Protestants that he would not establish the Catholic faith as America's official religion. Kennedy should have known that his assertion that a president's "views on religion are his own private affair" would be cited by secularists looking to close off the public square to a religiously informed conscience. Kennedy should have understood that faith is personal, but certainly not private.

For all of Kennedy's sins that night in Houston, perhaps his encounter with questioners immediately following the speech was his attempt at redemption.

In a rarely seen question-and-answer session, members of the Ministerial Association behaved appallingly. Houston's Baptist buffoons seemed to adopt the name of the notoriously anti-Catholic mid-19th-century Know-Nothing political party quite literally.

For instance, the first questioner said, "it's the policy of Catholic leadership to forbid [Catholics] to attend a Protestant service" and asked, "if we tonight were in the sanctuary of my church" could Kennedy have made his speech? "Well, yes, I could," Kennedy responded without the slightest hesitation.

The questioner was referring to an episode shortly after Kennedy was elected to the Congress in which a Protestant pastor invited the young congressman to attend an interfaith dinner. Kennedy initially accepted, but later declined after he learned that he was billed as a "Spokesman for the Catholic Faith." Rumor had it that a Cardinal forced Kennedy not to go. This, for Houston's Protestants, was a "gotcha" moment.

Kennedy refuted that notion and posited a couple questions of his own: "Is this the best that can be done after 14 years? Is this the only incident that can be shown?"

Another questioner took to the microphone to demand that Kennedy "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 said his viewpoint "represents the opinion of the overwhelming majority of American Catholics" and that it is based in a 1948 pastoral letter penned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter, "The Christian in Action," understood the First Amendment as it should be: The prohibition against the establishment of religion did not prohibit the cooperation of Church and State. The bishops condemned Justice Hugo Black's use of Thomas Jefferson's infamous declaration to Danbury Baptists as "doctrinaire secularism" and echoed Justice Stanley Reed's dissent that "a rule of law cannot be drawn from a figure of speech." Kennedy endorsed the bishops' letter four times that night in Houston.

This wasn't enough for Houston's Baptists: "Do you state it with the approval of the Vatican?" They pressed: "We would be most happy to have such a statement from the Vatican." The next questioner, implying Catholics were permitted to lie, asked Kennedy to comment on the obscure Catholic teaching on mental reservation. Kennedy responded that he didn't believe in lying.

The Democratic presidential candidate was then asked to respond to an alleged quote from Pope John XXIII: "Catholics must unite their strength toward the common aid and the Catholic hierarchy has the right and duty of guiding them." Does Kennedy subscribe to that? It depends on what is meant by "guide," Kennedy said. If "guide" is understood as "instruct on matters dealing with the organization of the faith, the details of the faith," then ministers are "of course" obligated to do so. But if "guide" means "direct me in fulfilling my public duty," Kennedy would reject the "unfortunate breach of -- an interference with the American political system." Kennedy rightly understood that clerics and even popes are not omni-competent and have no teaching authority on the intricacies of public policy.

If the query about mental reservation wasn't absurd enough, the last questioner brought up Pope Pius IX's syllabus of errors. Most Catholics probably couldn't tell you who Pius IX was, much less recite any of his 80 errors. Kennedy nonetheless was forced to respond. He again cited the bishops' 1948 letter to support the separation of Church and State, endorsed the right of other faiths to evangelize, and said he affirmed the freedom of conscience.

While Kennedy assured the Houston crowd that their questions were not unfair "or unreasonable or somebody who is concerned about the matter is prejudiced or bigoted," he ultimately acknowledged that he had "made no converts to my church."

Maybe not. But he wasn't endorsing intolerant secularism either.

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Nicholas G. Hahn III is editor of Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.