|John Kennedy, First and Only Catholic|
to serve as President of the United States
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 speech to the association of Protestant Ministers in 1960 is one of the landmark speeches in the history of American Church/State relationships and has stood as the defining statement of the relationship of religion and government in the American constitutional system. In the context of the time it was meant to answer those who were afraid that a Catholic in the White House would have to take direction from his Church and it was meant to criticize those Protestant pastors who were cautioning their parishioners that a vote for Kennedy was a vote to end religious freedom in the United States. At the time no Catholic saw a problem with this statement—indeed Catholics, clergy and laity alike, endorsed it as they saw the possibility of a Catholic being President for the first time. As I said it has stood for fifty years as the canon of independence for politician and voter alike. It has served as a bulwark to protect public officials from religious pressure so that they can fulfill their constitutional mandate. That being said, I wonder how many Catholics—especially bishops and clergy—would agree with it today? Among the laity, Senator Santorum for one has gone on record as disagreeing. He may be right and the Kennedy doctrine no longer stands. He may be wrong. But we do need to give the subject some thought.