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Catholics in Politics and the J.F.K. Effect

Boston Library

Patrick J. Deneen - published on 11/21/13

Kennedy won the White House and inaugurated Camelot, but sacrificed the fullness of the faith in the process. Fixing it requires Catholics to be willing to be less at home in America.

Coming of age in the 1960s and early 70s, there were often two prominent pictures in the parlor of many of my older Irish-Catholic relatives:  Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy.  The one was the leader of the Church; the other, the Catholic who had beat the odds and become leader of the United States, a nation founded and hitherto governed by Protestants.  

Kennedy achieved what many American Catholics believed might never happen – acceptance by a dominantly Protestant nation that, from the earliest days of the American experiment, had mistrusted Catholics for harboring allegiances to Rome and believing in religious tenets in contradiction to the American creed.  

Kennedy is today best known for forging a path of religious acceptability that has been today embraced by many Catholic Democratic politicians, intellectuals, and citizens, who argue that Catholicism is a set of private beliefs that should not be consulted or advanced as public policy.  

Catholics on the political Left rely on the argument that Kennedy advanced in his Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his run for the Presidency on September 12, 1960, and which was further developed by Mario Cuomo in an address delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.

In his Houston speech, Kennedy sought to assure his Protestant countrymen that there was no conflict between his faith and his citizenship, between his religion and his oath. Famously, he stated:

“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.”

Kennedy achieved the dream of his family and untold numbers of Catholics who had long labored under profound suspicion by their Protestant countrymen – as a result of promising that his beliefs would be private, and that would have no bearing upon the decisions he would make as President. Catholics finally had a President, at the price of a promise that his Catholicism would be irrelevant. This position was later echoed and developed by Mario Cuomo, who distinguished between his private Catholic belief and his duty and role as a governor in a pluralistic society to be guided not by specifically Catholic doctrine, but a widespread “consensus view of right and wrong.” To govern otherwise would be unjustly to attempt to impose a sectarian view on a (religiously) diverse society, and would potentially subject Catholics to comparable strictures when political office was won by an adherent of a different faith.

Kennedy’s position that Catholicism, for political purposes, would solely be regarded as a matter of private belief has become the main justification for Democratic politicians who, today, readily accept legal protections of abortion, stem-cell research, and the HHS mandate, and who oppose vouchers for parochial schools, among other positions. They treat Catholicism merely as opinion, and thus express a wholly fideistic view of a faith that (they surely must know) bases its claims as much upon reason as revelation.

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