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JFK and the 'religious question'   

Fr. Raymond De Souza

Forty years after the sad events in Dallas, it is clear that a key part of John F. Kennedy's legacy is the cleavage he opened between faith and public life.

President John F. Kennedy

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1960 the "religion issue" was a major factor in American politics no Catholic had ever been elected president. The first Catholic to win a major party nomination, governor Al Smith of New York, was defeated in 1928 after a campaign laced with anti-Catholic vitriol. In 1960, anti-Catholics claimed that electing a Catholic as president would turn the White House into a branch plant of the Vatican. And so Kennedy made a memorable trip in September, 1960, to Texas, addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association a group of conservative Baptist clergymen on the "religious question." What he said there continues to echo in our political culture.

"I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him on the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office," JFK said.

This was not just separation of Church and state which prohibits official establishment of religion by the government. JFK went much further, saying that his religious faith was a "private affair," to be thought of more as a pastime rather than a way of looking at the whole of reality. The wall of separation between Church and state would not be enough; JFK promised to build a wall within himself. On one side would be JFK with his religious faith. On the other would be president Kennedy, whose public policy decisions would be made without reference to his mostly deeply held convictions.

There were other approaches JFK could have taken. In 1906, Catholic controversialist Hilaire Belloc was running for a seat in the British House of Commons. Facing a largely Protestant electorate, Belloc addressed the Catholic issue head-on.

"I am a Catholic; as far as possible I go to Mass every day," said Belloc, taking a rosary out of his pocket. "This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day: If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!"

After a moment of stunned silence, his audience responded with a thunderous ovation, and Belloc won his seat. JFK chose an altogether different route.

JFK's political declaration of independence from his faith was a deliberate choice, for his era was a time in which politics was fairly charged with moral sentiment. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement under a banner of explicitly Christian inspiration. The anti-communist movement with which JFK aligned himself was, more often than not, articulated in explicitly moral language.

JFK's privatization of religious faith ran counter to the tenor of the times. It would, in due course, be a decisive factor in changing the times. For in winning the 1960 election, JFK demonstrated that one could both profess a religious creed and ignore it for political purposes at the same time.

Every time a politician says that he is "personally opposed" to something, but votes for it anyway, it is JFK talking. In fact, JFK himself adopted something like this approach on civil rights, making clear that he was personally opposed to segregation, but in his public acts only grudgingly imposed that view on a recalcitrant South.

After the tragic assassinations of JFK and RFK, it would be left to Senator Teddy Kennedy to carry forward the legacy. With his eye toward running for the presidency himself in the mid-1970s, Teddy dramatically reversed his pro-life position on abortion, saying that he was now "personally opposed" but publicly enthusiastic. Teddy's model proved seductive for generations of politicians, not only Kennedys, and not only Catholics. What was once thought impossible to do was now commonplace; politicians could profess something to be immoral and good public policy at the same time.

It was not long before this principle was extended even to immoral conduct. Personal behaviour was also relegated to a private sphere insulated from public life. The posthumous revelations of JFK's links to organized crime and his promiscuity were influential in advancing that trend. Teddy himself made his own contribution with his notorious drinking and philandering. The latest Kennedy, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, only confirms how much change was wrought by his uncles-in-law.

The whole sorry mess reached its nadir on Good Friday, 1991, when instead of doing the Stations of the Cross at the local parish, Teddy took his son and nephew out for a night of bar-hopping and skirt-chasing that ended up with William Kennedy Smith charged with rape (he was acquitted). The details of Teddy's behaviour that night were embarrassingly sordid. Finally the separation was complete; it was observed that Senator Kennedy's religion was so private he refused to impose it on himself.

There were other key players in the privatization of religious faith. One thinks especially of New York Catholics Mario Cuomo and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But given their worldwide following and cultural impact, it was JFK and the Kennedys who were the key players.

The president was killed 40 years ago in Dallas. What he said in Houston lives on stronger than ever.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "JFK and the 'religious question'." National Post, (Canada) 26 November, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House at Queen's University.

Copyright 2003 National Post



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved