Fifty-three years ago, John F. Kennedy stood before an audience in Houston, Texas and delivered, what was at the time, the single most important speech of his political career. It wasn’t about civil rights or national security or foreign policy, and it wasn’t about putting a man on the moon (that speech was also delivered in Houston, two years later).
His speech was about his religion, Roman Catholicism.
Kennedy was only the second Catholic in American history to become the Presidential nominee of a major political party. (Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, was the first, and John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush in 2004, was the third). Kennedy’s Catholic faith was, understandably, considered to be a huge political vulnerability.
For one, the United States has a history of anti-Catholic bigotry and discrimination. Catholics were actually banned from five of the thirteen original colonies: Virginia, New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to terrorizing African-Americans, also terrorized Catholics. Quoting from a report titled “eHistory: Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan,” by the Ohio State University Department of History (bold mine):
The Klan’s anti-Catholicism stemmed from the belief that Catholics could not be good Americans if they maintained allegiance to the pope. Furthermore, they believed Catholics sought exclusion from mainstream America by maintaining their own schools. In the Klan’s view, priests threatened intact families by exerting greater influence over women and children than the male head of household. Klan propaganda hysterically portrayed Catholics as potentially winnowing their way into government (à la Al Smith) and turning America over to Rome.
Kennedy was well-aware of the controversy, and although he didn’t consider it to be among the “real issues that should decide this campaign,” he understood the necessity of answering these questions, fully and frankly, in front of a major national audience.
Here is his address, in full. Quoting (transcript, bold mine):
Reverend Meza, Reverend Reck, I’m grateful for your generous invitation to speak my views.
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida–the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power–the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms–an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.
These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues–for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured–perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.
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 parishoners 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 an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches 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–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you–until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe–a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so–and neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test–even by indirection–for it. If they disagree with that safeguard they should be out openly working to repeal it.
I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none–who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him–and whose fulfillment of his Presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.
This is the kind of America I believe in–and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a “divided loyalty,” that we did “not believe in liberty,” or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the “freedoms for which our forefathers died.”
And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died–when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches–when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom–and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey–but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.
I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition–to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress–on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican–instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic.
I do not consider these other quotations binding upon my public acts–why should you? But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion. And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their Presidency to Protestants and those which deny it to Catholics. And rather than cite the misdeeds of those who differ, I would cite the record of the Catholic Church in such nations as Ireland and France–and the independence of such statesmen as Adenauer and De Gaulle.
But let me stress again that these are my views–for contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters–and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as President–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 the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But if the time should ever come–and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible–when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith–nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.
If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.
But if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the Presidency–practically identical, I might add, to the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution . . . so help me God.
Kennedy had only needed to convince his fellow Americans that his allegiance, as President, would be to his fellow citizens and that his administration would not be reflexively beholden to the Pope, but instead, Kennedy did much more than that: He reaffirmed his strong commitment to preserve and defend America’s robust separation between church and state; he made it abundantly clear that the Church does not speak for him and that he does not speak for the Church; he championed a strong and inclusive democratic process; he opposed providing tax dollars in order to unconstitutionally fund private schools, an argument that persists to this day. And most importantly, John F. Kennedy said, “I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion.”
Last week, Chelsea Brasted published an article in The Times-Picayune titled “JFK Owes Credit to Louisiana for Winning 1960 Election.” It’s not an overstatement: Kennedy became quick friends with a young judge named Edmund Reggie from Crowley and a brilliant civil rights attorney from Alexandria named Camille Gravel. Both the Gravel and the Reggie families became life-long friends of the Kennedys. Judge Reggie’s daughter Vicki married Senator Ted Kennedy in 1992 and remained the love of his life until his death in 2009. Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):
Even during the 1956 election, Des Marais noted Kennedy’s religion could be a boon in south Louisiana.
“From the standpoint of the Louisiana delegation (choosing Kennedy) was very logical because Louisiana has about a 33 percent Catholic population,” Des Marais said. “The Catholic population includes the part of the population that is in the highest segment of the voter group.”
If nothing else, there is one clear point in the 1960 presidential election: it was close.Kennedy won with 34,220,984 votes. Nixon lost with 34,108,157, a difference of just 112,827 votes.
Specifically in Louisiana, Kennedy earned a staggering 407,339 votes, while Nixon managed 230,980 votes.
Ultimately, Kennedy’s 1959 trip to Louisiana wasn’t an official campaign stop, but it had all the trappings of one. The only thing missing was an official announcement.
“It certainly was one of the most spectacular political tours I’ve seen in terms of somebody who was not a candidate,” said Des Marais. “It convinced me. If I ever had any doubts that Kennedy should be the nominee, or any of us had ever, by that time that convinced us that, as far as Louisiana was concerned, any other candidate would be totally unsatisfactory by comparison.”
In 1960, the Presidential election was razor-close. Kennedy went to bed that night not knowing whether he’d become the 35th President of the United States. By the morning, Nixon actually carried more states, but Kennedy won the electoral college and the popular vote, by a little bit more than 112,000 votes. Louisiana Catholics had made the difference. John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic man elected President of the United States, and Ms. Brasted of The Times-Picayune is right: He owed much of his success to the dogged determination of his Catholic friends in Louisiana.
Catholicism in Louisiana pre-dates the founding of the United States by over a half of a century. Today, although Catholics and Protestants live on all corners and crevasses of the state, Louisianians often claim that anything north of the Red River, which bisects the state through Alexandria, is “Baptist country” and anything south is “Catholic country.” If, like me, you were born and raised in no man’s land, so to speak, you belong to the Crossroads, a mishmash. The most important historic building in my hometown isn’t a reconstructed plantation home or a Beaux Arts hotel building from the early 1900s; it’s the downtown Catholic cathedral.
Thirty miles north, it’s 70% – 90% Protestant. Thirty miles south, 70% – 90% Catholic. All told, Louisiana is around 30% Catholic and 60% Protestant.
What does any of this matter?
Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Governor, was born more than a decade after Kennedy spoke about the separation of church and state, about the need for religious inclusiveness and respect, and about the importance of being “against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself).” Twenty-five years after Kennedy was assassinated, a teenaged Bobby Jindal converted to Catholicism, inspired, he claims, by a classmate of his who dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court justice so that she could strike down Roe v. Wade. A couple of years later, Jindal’s Catholic faith was solidified after participating in a bizarre, ad-hoc exorcism of a college classmate who apparently had a romantic crush on him. Jindal believed the exorcism cured his friend “Susan” of skin cancer, and he published a personal essay about the experience in a major international Catholic journal.
I am not a Catholic, but I have always had a deep admiration and respect for the dignity and integrity of President Kennedy’s remarks. His faith was his, personally, and he would not seek to impose it on the American people. For Kennedy, also, respect for people of other faiths meant opposing the public subsidization of churches and church schools; it meant championing our shared civic, educational institutions, instead of boycotting or abandoning or bankrupting them. Governor Jindal has done the opposite: He is effectively “boycotting” our public schools and providing tax payer dollars, instead, to fund private and parochial schools, 80% of which are owned and operated by Jindal’s church. Of the few schools not associated with Jindal’s church, students are taught to reject basic science from men who call themselves “prophets” and administrators who allegedly engage in widespread financial fraud.
Governor Jindal sells all of this to a public desperate for chances and new opportunities under the guise of “choice,” but really, there’s only one choice for the vast and overwhelming majority of students: You either access a voucher to attend a Christian (typically, a Catholic) school, or you continue to suffer in a school that his administration has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. This “illusion” of choice- providing the voucher to the parents and not directly to the school- creates a legal fiction; it requires us to believe that parents actually have options. Oh, and it’s all based on a lottery.
School privatization and Jindal’s emphasis on vouchers are, ultimately, aimed to foster “market competition” and “profitability,” concepts that only apply to the delivery of education if you also believe in the commodatization of students.
This all reminded me of what Pope Francis published yesterday. While I may a good idea of what President Kennedy would have made about Governor Jindal’s public subsidization of Catholic schools, his denial of Medicaid expansion funds, his refusal to set up insurance exchanges, his opposition to negligence suits against the world’s wealthiest energy companies, his slashing of funding from higher education, his refusal to accept funds for stimulus projects, I think Pope Francis makes it abundantly clear.
Quoting (at length, bold mine, not block-quoting for clarity):
I. SOME CHALLENGES OF TODAY’S WORLD
52. In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occuring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
No to an economy of exclusion
53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
No to the new idolatry of money
55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
No to a financial system which rules rather than serves
57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.
58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
No to the inequality which spawns violence
59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history”, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.
60. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.