On September 12, 1960, then senator, and presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy stood before a room of protestant ministers to try and convince them that he was not beholden to the Vatican or to the tenants of his faith. Two weeks prior, a group of protestant ministers met in Washington and made a declaration that Kennedy could not be considered independent of the Roman Catholic Church unless he denounced their teachings. His appearance in Houston was designed to address the issue and the numerous rumors associated with his religion.
When Kennedy spoke before the Houston Ministers Conference, he was nearing the end of his campaign and had been having a difficult time with the so-called religion issue. Even though he had been in Congress for 14 years, as a Catholic, he was deemed untrustworthy to hold the office of president.
Kennedy and his advisers had prepared for this when he was considering his run. There had been only one other Catholic candidate for president prior to him. In 1928, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith had to fight against Catholic prejudice, much of which had been stirred up by the Ku Klux Klan. He was unable to convince voters that he would not would amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the official religion or that he would build a tunnel connecting the White House and the Vatican.
Herbert Hoover won the election.
While much of the attention of the Houston event focuses on his now famous speech, the question and answer session afterwards provide incredible insight into the belief of the religious community, and perhaps, many Americans, about the Roman Catholic Church. There was still lingering distrust of Catholicism. Many believed that basic tenants of American democracy – freedom of religion, free will and separation of church and state – were at odds with church doctrine. Furthermore, they believed the church had a right and responsibility to direct its members in all aspects of members’ lives, including in the political realm.
At the beginning of his speech, Kennedy immediately addressed the fact that religion was not the most crucial issue facing the nation at that moment. He further pointed out that it was only an issue because he was Catholic. Still, he understood that it was important to reiterate that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
This led to several question as to how, as a Catholic, he had the right to even say that, considering that the church did not believe that. Kennedy disagreed with their interpretation, emphasizing that his belief was in line with the Catholic Church and American Catholics. At one point, a minister stood up and informed Kennedy that the Baptist’s Pastor Conference of St. Louis was going to issue a declaration asking that the Vatican officially approve Kennedy’s statement and to make it official church doctrine that they believed in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
In other words, they wanted the candidate who they did not trust to be independent of the church to get the church’s permission to be independent of the church.
Aside from the Catholic bigotry, much of what was motivating opposition to Kennedy’s candidacy was the fear of erosion of the separation of church and state. They worried that he would use his faith to decide policy. Fifty years later, the landscape is much different. Today, it’s impossible for candidates to get votes without specifically outlining their religious beliefs and to specify how their faith would influence their decisions.
In other words, they wish to break down the barrier between the church and state.
This transition was not a quick one. In his book “God in the White House,” Randall Balmer suggests that it was the presidency of Richard Nixon that made people once again focus on a candidate’s faith. Nixon, who had been Kennedy’s opponent during the 1960 campaign, left office in disgrace in 1974 and America became more concerned about a candidate’s moral center. For many, this meant knowing a candidate’s religious beliefs.
Beginning with Jimmy Carter, who was open about his faith and declared himself born-again, evangelicals decided it was time to influence politics in order to bring integrity back to the office of the presidency. By the end of his term, the political right had joined with evangelicals to support more conservative candidates, like Ronald Reagan.
According to Balmer, it was not the issue of abortion that gave rise to the religious right. He points out that at the time of the Roe v Wade decision, abortion was largely a Catholic issue and that many religious organizations supported the decision, including Southern Baptists, of which Jimmy Carter was a member. In fact, as governor, Reagan had signed historic legislation which legalized abortion – before the Roe v. Wade decision. The reason that evangelicals lost faith in Carter was their belief that he supported the IRS recommendation to revoke Bob Jones University tax-exempt status, a status they felt they didn’t deserve due to their racial discrimination.
It was about money.
Fiscal conservatism and military might begin to be justified by biblical teachings. As time went on social issues such as gay rights, birth control and abortion became the focus of campaigns. Candidates seeking the support of religious voters no longer emphasized their separation of their faith from their decisions as a public official, but instead celebrated it. George W. Bush even declared Jesus was his favorite political figure.
While Kennedy expressed a belief in an America “where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference,” today’s politicians demand taxpayer funds for use at religious schools through vouchers and tax deductions. Fifty years ago the Vatican was seen as a threat to our democracy, today Catholic leaders weigh in on everything from health policy to immigration reform. Not to mention that every president since has identified as Christian…and protestant.
While our current president has also expressed his deep faith, he has resisted the extremes of religion. However, political leaders at all levels of government continue to try to break down that wall separating us from a theocracy.
The America Kennedy spoke of, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope,[… ]or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials,” still eludes us, 50 years later.
Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs, via National Archives