Today is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy the first, and to date the only, Catholic to serve as President of the United States. It might be worthwhile considering Kennedy’s words in a famous speech given to 300 Protestant ministers in Dallas Texas on September 12, 1960—less than two months before his election. This speech was a milepost in the Kennedy rise to the presidency; he most likely would not have been elected without it. He himself knew its importance—he diverted his campaign tour from the West Coast to go Houston only to give this speech. In 1928 the only previous Catholic Candidate for the presidency had been defeated because of his religious affiliation. It is hard for us today to understand the strong bias against Catholics in American public life, but throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century many Americans were convinced that a Catholic politician would be no more than the advance guard for a papal takeover of the United States. Catholics were suspected of divided loyalties, or even worse, of owing their chief loyalty to their foreign based and foreigner-controlled Church. We can look at this more closely in some future postings. Today let’s look at Kennedy’s words:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, 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.
Kennedy’s words sufficed the lay aside the fear of the political ambitions of the Catholic Church of enough Americans that he was able to squeak by in the November elections. Interestingly from a historical perspective no Catholic voice raised any objections to his speech. But today, how would Catholics—including some of our bishops—react to the idea “no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act”? And what about a minor change in the subsequent sentence to say “and no Catholic preacher would tell his parishioners for whom to vote?” Something has changed in America. Something has changed in American Catholicism. And it probably isn’t a change for the better.