JFK’s Houston Speech at 50: Three Views

Editor’s note: John F. Kennedy’s historic speech to a group of Protestant clergy in Houston on September 12, 1960 has been the subject of much debate among Catholics. Was it merely a way for our first, and so far only, Catholic president to diffuse Protestant bias, or did it signal the abandonment of Catholicity in the public square, even by self-proclaimed Catholics?
The Catholic Thing has asked three commentators with differing perspectives to examine the case as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the speech. – Robert Royal 

George J. Marlin

Throughout the presidential campaign of 1960, the religious issue vexed the Democratic Party’s nominee, John F. Kennedy. The Fair Campaign Practices Committee reported that 392 different anti-Catholic publications were distributed to voters, with an estimated circulation as high as 25 million. These brochures, pamphlets, and newspapers publicized issues that went back to the days of the Know-Nothings: that a Catholic’s first allegiance is to the pope; that the Catholic hierarchy controls the lives of the faithful; that a Catholic president will establish a Catholic state; and that a Catholic president will force Catholic moral codes on the American people.

In August 1960, Protestant organizations in Michigan and Kentucky announced their opposition to a Catholic president. Later in the month, twenty-five Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal ministers promised to “oppose with all powers at our command, the election of a Catholic to the Presidency of the United States.” Numerous other groups representing tens of thousands of Protestants voiced similar anti-Catholic opposition to Kennedy.

On September 7, an ad-hoc group of 150 Protestants led by the renowned Dr. Norman Vincent Peale issued a statement criticizing the Catholic Church and accusing it of being a “political as well as religious organization [that has] specifically repudiated, on many occasions, the principle sacred to us that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.”

Later that same day, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) launched another political torpedo:

We cannot avoid recognition of the fact that one church in the U.S., the largest church operating on American soil, officially supports a world-wide policy of partial union of church and state wherever it has the power to enforce such a policy. In the U.S. the bishops of this church have specifically rejected the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the separation of church and state.

Kennedy and his team knew that he could not ignore these diatribes, and he decided to confront the issue at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. In his speech (written by Theodore Sorensen) Kennedy declared:

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…. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office….
Whatever issues may come before me as President, if I should be elected – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Cardinal Spellman with the 1960 presidential hopefuls

While the secular media and Kennedy’s followers declared the speech a triumph, his statements on the relation of church and state did not sit well with everyone. Some members of the hierarchy, particularly New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, were not pleased that – by re-inventing himself and currying favor with liberals – Kennedy had discarded federal issues important to the Church, such as aid to parochial schools.

America’s leading Catholic political thinker, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who had written extensively on the role of the Catholic Church in a pluralist society, was perturbed by Kennedy’s attempt to sever any connections between one’s religious and political creeds. “To make religion merely a private matter,” Murray argued, “was idiocy.”

Murray was also upset that Sorensen ignored his advice to stress in the Houston speech that while Church hierarchy should never coercea public official, they should always be free to instruct Catholics from the pulpit as to the Church’s teachings on moral issues debated in the public square.

The Catholic periodical Ave Maria stated in an editorial, “To relegate your conscience to your ‘private life’ is not only unrealistic, but dangerous as well.” The liberal columnist Murray Kempton quipped that Kennedy would become the nation’s “first anti-clerical President.” Historian William Miller concluded, “the joke was that [Kennedy] turned out to be, in effect, our first Baptist president, one, that is, who defended a thorough going separation more characteristic of that group than of his own church….”

Looking back, Kennedy’s private religion comment in his Houston speech opened a can of worms that haunts American Catholics to this day. That’s because many Catholic pols argue that one’s religious views should not have any role in the public square, because faith is nothing more than a personal thing.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance, the Democratic nominee – baptized Catholic John Kerry – defending his pro-abortion votes in the Senate, wrapped himself in the Kennedy cloak: “I oppose abortion…. I believe that life does begin at conception. [But] I can’t take my Catholic belief, my articles of faith and legislate it on a Protestant or Jew or Atheist.”

Such reasoning is absurd. By its very nature, a senator’s vote in favor of any legislation implies an act of faith that it is the best policy to impose on all the American people, including those who don’t share the legislator’s “faith” in the issue.

The election of John F. Kennedy removed some obstacles for American Catholics, but at a price. By ceding ground to secularists in his Houston speech, JFK marginalized those Catholics in the public square who are actually guided by Church teachings, and they have been branded public villains ever since.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Paul Johnson and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

John B. Kienker

The speech John F. Kennedy delivered in Houston must seem remarkable to younger Catholics. Can it be that only fifty years ago a presidential candidate needed to assure his fellow citizens that, regardless of his baptism, if elected he would to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?

Although the speech helped break through decades of bigotry to put a Catholic in the White House, this anniversary is more a cause for regret than celebration among some of the faithful. The Houston speech has come to be seen as laying the groundwork for today’s nominally Catholic politicians who confuse and undermine what the Church teaches on moral truth, most often as it applies to the right to life.

Some believe what was suggested in Kennedy’s speech became unmistakable in another delivered by Mario Cuomo at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, in which the New York governor repeatedly stated that although he opposed abortion personally he would continue to support it publicly. For Cuomo, affirming the right to life was just one of a number of “religious values” or “articles of belief” – no different, really, than transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception – that his Church “require[s]” him to believe. He couldn’t in good conscience force his peculiar beliefs on others through law, though he remained untroubled if the Supreme Court did so.

Delivering his address on September 13, Cuomo certainly wanted it to appear as if he were building on the foundation laid by John Kennedy in Houston twenty-four years earlier. But unlike Cuomo, Kennedy did not a call for religious indifferentism or moral relativism. His support for an “absolute” separation of church and state may have overstated the matter, but the exaggeration was probably necessary in order to drive home a firm rejection of theocracy, which too many Americans still suspected the Catholic faith required. Kennedy wanted to make absolutely clear that, if elected president, he would pursue public policies on the basis of the common good and not the pope’s political opinions.

The crucial difference between Kennedy’s and Cuomo’s speeches is that Kennedy denied, as he put it, “any conflict to be even remotely possible when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest.” What is right to do as an American doesn’t conflict with what is right to do as a Catholic because the laws of nature and of nature’s God cannot conflict.

Fr. Murray on the cover of TIME, December 12, 1960

America’s founders were confident that morality is knowable without the aid of divine revelation, by observing the natural order. This is one reason why they prohibited religious tests for office; good government does not depend on professing the right sectarian creed. Because morality is knowable, government would not remain neutral in these matters, but would encourage good living through good laws. The state would not mandate what it had no business or power to control – the personal faith that is a gift of God’s grace.

Before Kennedy flew to Houston to deliver his speech, his campaign briefly ran it past Fr. John Courtney Murray, who just earlier that year had published We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, in which he argued that the American creed has much in common with the Catholic creed. The American founders had staked their claim, Murray wrote, “on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible.” In this way, the American experiment was a continuation of the natural law tradition, which “has found, and still finds, its intellectual home within the Catholic Church” – though Murray was very clear that “the doctrine of natural law has no Roman Catholic presuppositions.” American Catholics are heirs to an “ethical and political idiom familiar to them as it was familiar to their fathers, both the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of the American Republic.”

Today, we suffer the spectacle of Catholic politicians no more familiar with Augustine or Aquinas than they are with Jefferson, Adams, or Madison. They grab at these names in an effort like Mario Cuomo’s to explain away their political positions while engaging in verbal gymnastics so convoluted it would make the most unscrupulous casuist blush. These politicians promote what Murray called “the new morality,” which “sees things as so complicated that moral judgment becomes practically impossible” and which “is at bottom an ethical relativism pure and simple.”

Too many of our representatives – Catholic and non-Catholic, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative – think morality is merely another profession of faith. Whatever its shortcomings, the argument John F. Kennedy made to the Houston ministers fifty years ago needs to be taken seriously once again in order to remind not only Catholics but all Americans of the self-evident truths at the heart of our politics.

John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.


Peter Brown

This weekend’s marks the anniversary of JFK’s speech before a skeptical crowd of Houston ministers, a step considered by historians as essential for his election to the presidency. The speech is a classic Rorschach ink blot: liberal Catholics see in it the hard-fought license to apply Church teaching selectively when it comes to divisive social issues while conservatives see it as the great Faustian bargain that bought advancement for Catholics in public life through forfeiture of an authentic Catholic identity. Everyone agrees that things were never quite the same for Catholic politicians after this. Few if any had to apologize for their Catholicism after 1960, while many a Catholic campaign had sunk before then.

In a recent book on the subject, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960,  Shaun Casey offers perhaps the most charitable interpretation of the speech. In 1960, of course, unlimited abortion was still far off on the horizon, as were no-fault divorce laws. The Pill had just been made available, but few thought it would lead to a “sexual revolution.” None of these issues was even a blip on the radar screen in 1960. It is also usually forgotten that the Church’s official embrace of religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae also had not yet appeared.

Instead, what JFK was up against was a fairly sophisticated conservative Protestant hermeneutic that disqualified any Catholic from the presidency. It went something like this: Roman Catholicism was not merely a Church but a state as well, and thus was inherently inimical to the idea of the separation of the two. Moreover, Pius IX’s 1869 Syllabus of Errors officially rejected the concept of church-state separation, and liberal democracy more generally. Most chillingly, the document itself had claimed “Error has no rights”! Finally, there was the Jesuit concept of “mental reservation,” which allegedly permitted the Catholic candidate to prevaricate about his true intentions, provided they furthered the Catholic cause of bringing the whole world under papal authority. Specific disavowals by the Catholic could not be trusted. One need only look at Latin America or Spain to see how things would wind up if America ever elevated a Catholic to the presidency. As chief anti-Catholic spokesman Norman Vincent Peale put it, “our culture is at stake,” since a Catholic president would “be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests.”

Of course, the idea that Kennedy or any other Catholic was plotting a takeover of the U.S. government was always risible. In 1962, Pope John XXIII was taking English lessons and cracked to a visiting American attaché, “How can I run your country if I can’t even speak the language?” This anecdote recalls an equally amusing one, when just over thirty years before, Al Smith, seeking to become the first Catholic president, was being badgered by a gaggle of Southern preachers over the latest papal encyclical. Confused about what to say, he turned to an aide and asked sheepishly, “What’s an encyclical?” This gang was hardly poised for a global takeover! But it is a truism that in politics, perception is reality, and JFK felt he had to respond. Hence, the speech.

Sen. Kennedy speaking to the ministers in Houston

Did Kennedy intend to embrace the position of radical secularism – that one’s religious beliefs were wholly private and thus irrelevant to public service? Casey argues that, in context, the answer is “not really.” It is true that JFK confessed a belief in America where the separation of church and state was “absolute,” and in which the president’s religion was his “private affair.” But at the end of the speech he pointedly refused to disavow his religious views and even promised to resign the presidency should any irreconcilable conflict arise between his Catholicism and his discharge of the duties of the office.

JFK did not put forth a coherent view of the role of one’s faith in public life. He announced no new understanding of being authentically Catholic in a pluralistic country nor articulated any principles by which a Catholic public official could be true to both his Church and his office. He said what he had to say to win an election as a Catholic in the America of 1960 – nothing more and nothing less. Kennedy’s speech answered the Catholic question of 1960, but it offered no insight at all for, say, the abortion question in 1980. JFK’s calling for “private” religion to placate anti-Catholic bigots was a poorly chosen phrase, but one understandable in 1960. A Catholic calling for religion as a “private affair” after 1970 was an act of blithering incoherence.

It is frequently argued that JFK paved the way for the secularization of the Catholic vote, and of politics generally. For a time perhaps it did. But Mario Cuomo’s 1984 display of pretzel logic at Notre Dame marked something of a high water mark for Catholic private religionists. By 2004, John Kerry echoed a few of Cuomo’s arguments but did so mostly amid disingenuous attempts to convince voters of all the ways his Catholicism informed his positions. With the 2008 election of Barack “we worship an awesome God in the blue states” Obama, the shift was complete. In fact, no major politician of either party would or could give the JFK speech today. Value free skepticism is a political loser.

No longer is the fight so much between liberals who think that religion doesn’t matter and conservatives who think it does. Liberals have lost that argument. The new religion and politics debate will be between liberals who think that religion motivates a more generous safety net including government funded health care and conservatives who think religion motivates concern for the unborn and traditional families. Conservative Catholics should forget the debate over the JFK speech and adapt to the new conversation lest they lose this debate!