'Absolute Separation': Fifty Years Later John F. Kennedy's Houston Address on Church and State Is Still Sparking Admiration-And Controversy

By Bathija, Sandhya | Church & State, October 2010 | Go to article overview

'Absolute Separation': Fifty Years Later John F. Kennedy's Houston Address on Church and State Is Still Sparking Admiration-And Controversy


Bathija, Sandhya, Church & State


At nearly 9 p.m. on Sept. 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy stepped to a podium in the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.

In a ballroom filled with 300 pastors from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and 300 spectators, Kennedy delivered a speech that many scholars believe may have won him the White House.

"I believe in an America," said the 43-year-old Democratic candidate, "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 vowed that if he were elected president he would uphold the Constitution, keep church and state separate and not substitute his Roman Catholic religious beliefs for the national interest in making public policy. (See "John F. Kennedy On Religion And Politics," page 15.)

"Kennedy kept those promises," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "In this inspiring address, he laid down a clear church-state benchmark that has served us well in the decades since then."

Last month was the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's insightful oration, which has been praised--and criticized--over the years. For advocates of church-state separation, it resonates today just as it did then.

The speech came at a time when Kennedy was facing heat for his Catholic religious affiliation. Though there had already been two Catholic Supreme Court justices and numerous Catholics in Congress and the state legislatures, no Catholic had served as president.

At the time of the 1960 presidential race, tension between Catholics and Protestants remained high. The Catholic hierarchy was known for pushing a controversial political agenda that included a ban on the sale of contraceptives, censorship of books and movies and government aid to parochial schools.

To make matters worse for Kennedy, the election was prior to Vatican II, the international conclave of bishops in Rome that finally put the church officially on record in support of religious liberty. Before Vatican II, which began in 1962 and ended in 1965, the church hierarchy in Rome often sought preferential treatment from governments around the world.

Interfaith tension surrounding the election grew when The New York Times published a front-page article reporting that prominent preacher Norman Vincent Peale had formed an organization of 150 Protestant ministers to address the religion issue in the presidential race. The group, whose members favored Republican candidate Richard Nixon, believed that the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed status as both a church and a temporal state, made Kennedy's faith a legitimate concern.

Many Americans feared that a Catholic president would not be able to separate his policies from church doctrine and would be under enormous pressure to obey the Catholic bishops on both religious and political concerns. Kennedy and his campaign officers knew that if they did not address this issue head on, it would cost him the election.

The Kennedy campaign organized a community relations division to focus specifically on the matter. James Wine, a staff member at the National Council of Churches, was put in charge, and he reportedly answered between 600 and 1,000 letters per week about Kennedy's religious beliefs.

In March of 1959, Kennedy began speaking out on the issue himself. He wrote an article in Look magazine opposing public aid for parochial schools and pledged to remain independent from religious leaders in his decision making.

"Whatever one's religion in his private life," Kennedy wrote, "nothing takes precedence over the office holder's oath to uphold the Constitution in all its parts, including the First Amendment requirement of the separation of church and state. …

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