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J.F.K., Edited: What He Should Have Said About His Religion

J.F.K., Edited


John Zmirak - published on 11/26/13

It's too bad he insisted on hard secularism, because the very Catholic tradition he sidelined had the resources he needed to respond to this Protestant critics.

Last week, we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the traumatic public murder of John F. Kennedy, a killing that helped mark the end of an era of civility and optimism in American public life. As presidents go, his achievements were rather modest, and it was left to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to advance a broad-based agenda of liberal, activist government at home, and aggressive U.S. intervention abroad. But Kennedy did leave a legacy – especially for Catholics, as Archbishop Charles Chaput pointed out in his insightful book, Render Unto Caesar. In the course of running for president, Kennedy had to address the deep suspicion many American Protestants felt toward a Church that (as they’d been taught) had persecuted their ancestors, and which as of 1959 still clung to a Counter-Reformation policy that inspired Catholic states. Think of Franco’s Spain, which heavily favored Catholics and restricted the public practice of any other faith.  Kennedy could have presented a vision of Catholics in public life inspired by the writings of John Courtney Murray, whose vision of Catholics competing fairly in the market of public opinion inside a free, faith-friendly society helped shape the Church’s document Dignitatis Humanæ, which affirmed that human beings enjoy a freedom of conscience which the State has no right to unduly restrict. Murray’s writing, especially his brilliant manifesto We Hold These Truths, saw the Church’s role in a pluralistic society as one of tutor and advisor, an advocate of the truths of Natural Law, which believers and non-believers alike can discover by reason alone.

The Natural Law alone, and not revelations public or private, ought to be the standard by which we judge policy and law. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, within the bounds of Natural Law, we must also consider how prudent it is in a given circumstance to attempt to legislate. It would not be wise to punish every sin against the Natural Law when doing so would injure other vital goods. Here’s an example: We can know the existence of God by reason alone; hence, to raise one’s children as atheists flies in the face of the Natural Law.  But no decent person would want the State to deprive atheists of their children, for that would violate an even more deeply rooted good: the integrity of the family. And so on. Our consideration of how to advocate for the Natural Law must be informed by our cultural context, and the dangers of overweening government power. This tradition of American Catholic thinking was carried on by worthies such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and later the Rev. Robert Sirico and Robert George. (I was privileged to edit the best recent restatement and refinement of this position, Tea Party Catholic, by Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute.)  

But Kennedy said something quite different from John Courtney Murray, and adopted a vision of church-state separation that was, in fact, quite un-American, drawn not from almost two centuries of Yankee jurisprudence based on the Common Law and Natural Law, but rather from the radical anti-clericalism and secularism that emerged in Enlightenment France, which led to the outright persecution of the Church in France in 1793 and again in 1905. The position which Kennedy adopted amounted to this: “I am a Catholic in the same sense that I am Irish, and it has as little to do with how I think or will legislate. It’s just a personal quirk, which I keep in a lockbox, along with those copies of Playboy.” Because of Kennedy’s charm, charisma, and virtual martyr status among American Catholics, this extreme secularist stance became a respectable, even mainstream position, giving political cover to two generations of pro-choice American Catholic politicians, from Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro in the 1980s to Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi today.

Given the dark side of Kennedy’s legacy, we should mark his passing by taking his ideas seriously while attempting to correct them.  Kennedy laid out his Jacobin stance in a famous speech that helped him win the 1960 election – one given to a group of powerful Protestant ministers in Houston. So glad were they to hear him reject the triumphalism of intolerant, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, they missed the fact that he was endorsing a rampant secularism that would undermine and marginalize every church and every believer in America. This week, I decided to take Kennedy’s text and edit it, and present the speech he should have given, if he had had a balanced and truly Catholic grasp of what freedom means.

Cuts from Kennedy’s words will be crossed out, and language he should have used instead will be given italicized in brackets.

Kennedy: Rev. Meza, Rev. 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.

Keep reading on the next page

These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And [in one sense,] they are
religious issues,
for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers
.  [because they concern our deepest values, which arise from our most treasured beliefs. Even those of us who lack supernatural faith are aware of the natural law, which is “written on the human heart.”]

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 
[the teachings of the Catholic Church are hardly a secret] — but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where
the separation of church and state is absolute
,  [our Constitution’s refusal to establish a single church protects the integrity of faith and the neutrality of law, where people of different beliefs base their policy preferences on that same natural law that can be known by reason alone. This “law of nature” was known to the ancient Stoics and to Jewish rabbis, to Christian monks and political theorists alike. The great Protestant writer C. S. Lewis – in the depths of the Second World War when the West was fighting for its life against an evil, totalitarian regime that knew no law – published The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis identified this natural law as present in almost every culture known to man. He called it the “Tao,” using a Chinese word for a universal concept – that man has a certain nature that dictates how he must live if he wants to be truly happy. To learn the outlines of that nature is the task not of theologians but of philosophers, and of every thinking person. To serve that nature rightly is the duty of any statesman. That natural, integral “happiness” is what our Founders wished that free men would pursue.]

[Indeed, when our founding Declaration spoke of “the God of nature” and of “nature’s law,” they were pointing to this rich tradition of reflection on how man ought to live – although some of them, as Deists, accepted a truncated version of it, limiting natural law to the protection of just a few narrow rights. And those rights are real, and non-negotiable: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

[But we as Americans have always sought more than that. We know that man is a social animal; that he is not an atom spinning in the void, careless of the needs of friends and family, or the claims of the less fortunate. As a generous people, we have sought and will seek to do more than merely ward our citizens, one from another. We see that man is more than a bundle of rights; he is also the bearer of duties, of sacred responsibilities, which include a commitment to care for the weak and the helpless, to lift up the broken-hearted and guarantee equal opportunity to every citizen, regardless of race or creed.]

[It is the great American tradition that most of this support should come not from an overweening State, but from what that great friend to America, Alexis de Tocqueville, called “civil society.” Here is where the churches come in. They are and ought to remain the primary source of philanthropic outreach in America, along with all the other voluntary groups that operate without State funds or bureaucratic controls. These free institutions are the greatest safeguard against tyranny, which is precisely why our Communist foes are so intent on liquidating them, wherever they come to power.  God forbid that we free Americans should imitate their example.]

[Now to speak directly to some of your concerns. Of course,] no Catholic prelate may ever tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, just as no Protestant minister should tell his parishioners for whom to vote. No church or church school should be granted public funds or political preference [– or subjected to state interference or persecution.] Likewise, no man [who accepts these Constitutional principles] should be 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, Jewish [nor atheistic, but rather is governed by our best grasp of “laws of nature,” and hence of human nature;] 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 – but [rather follows his conscience, as informed by reflection on all the sources of our free traditions, to discern the policy most attuned to human dignity;] where no religious body [or anti-religious sect] seeks to impose its will 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, [as grounded in our common pursuit of the truth about human nature – a truth that unites us in our struggle against totalitarianism, bigotry, poverty, and other contemporary evils.

Keep reading on the next page

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
.  [govern his private life, and who guides his official actions not by revealed dogmas but by the dictates of natural law, a law which – as we reminded the men we were trying at Nuremburg – transcends and ought to inform any positive laws of any land.]

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 fourteen years in Congress, on my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against
[entangling] public aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself) – 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
[religious freedom,] 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 – [and the brave resistance of Catholics such as Cardinal Mindszenty to the aggression of our Communist enemies, who would deny religious freedom to every man.

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
. [is also proud to be a Catholic.] I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not [pretend to] 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
, [my grasp of “the law of nature,”] in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside
religious pressures or dictates
[religious dictates or secular pressures.] 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 fourteen 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.”

Transcript courtesy of John Zmirak, author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism.

CatholicismReligious Freedom
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