The Religion of and about John F. Kennedy
James S. Wolfe
Studies in the Christian tradition distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the religion that grew up about him. Jesus' own religion centered on the God of the Old Testament whose kingdom he announced. The religion of Jesus' followers centered on Jesus, whom they proclaimed Lord of all and the Christ, or the anointed of God. Some see this shift as a betrayal of the original message. As one critic put it, "Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, but what we got was the church."
A similar distinction, and even disparity, can be articulated in regard to the religion of and about John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's own religion was spare and anti-mythic. The religion that grew up around Kennedy is extensive and rich in myth. Let us examine Kennedy's religion before and during his presidency and compare it with the religion about Kennedy which flourished after his death.
Kennedy's own religion was compounded of Catholicism, humanism, and patriotism. Although the "religion issue" in Kennedy's presidential campaign focused on his Catholicism, it was actually the weakest strand in his religion. His wife Jacqueline thought it quite unfair to oppose Jack as a Catholic because he was "such a poor Catholic." 1 Kennedy was humanist enough to dismiss the political relevance of his church and patriotic enough to espouse the state instead. In a pre-campaign interview in Look magazine Kennedy asserted, "Whatever one's religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts--including the First Amendment and strict separation of church and state."2 While Kennedy's statement allayed fears that he would lack sufficient independence from his authoritarian church, some churchmen and theologians saw too much independence. Bishop Pike saw a "thoroughgoing secularism" in Kennedy's insulation from religion, 3 whereas Rene Williamson saw "sheer totalitarianism" in