Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: JFK on religion in politics, 1960

Sunday and the day before the US midterm elections. Pundits are speculating on the role religious conservatives will play. We are now so inured to politicians invoking their faith it sounds strange to think it has been any other way. But it has been, and within my voting lifetime. Over a year ago in one of my first Sermonettes in this space I recalled those days. It seems appropriate to do it again.

On Monday, September 12, 1960, Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced the Southern Baptists at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the subject of religion in American politics. Kennedy was the first candidate who was also a Catholic since the 1928 campaign of Democrat Al Smith. Smith had been astonished, then dismayed, at the vicious anti-Catholic campaign waged by the Protestant churches of the day. It looked as if the scenario was to be repeated. Kennedy had decided to take on the issue directly.

Here's some of what he had to say that day. The contrast with current candidates couldn't be greater:

[B]ecause 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 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.


Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to 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 the pastoral levels, 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 be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him¹ 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 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 and obligated to none, who can attend any ceremony, service, or dinner his office may appropriately require of him to fulfill; and whose fulfillment of his Presidential office 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 of America I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might 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."


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, 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 dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

You can read the whole speech here, complete with its obligatory Cold War rhetoric, for which I give him low marks. I don't romanticize his three short years as President. There was much to complain about. But these views represent the best of American democracy on the subject of religion. What we have today represents something so much worse.

This too shall pass. But it is hard to endure and I hope to see its end in my lifetime.

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but, "hope is not a plan" ;-)

Wish voters could hear him give the speech you post here.

By crfullmoon (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

When and how did US politics become bogged down in 'hot button' issues such as gay marriage and abortion? Identity politics? How did that happen?

Being pro or contra abortion serves to distract from the fact that millions of Americans have no health care insurance and that large numbers of pregnant women don't receive what modern science can provide. Banning abortion will have little effect; people will be more careful, circumvent the law somehow, or have clean back-street abortions, clean meaning it is medically OK but you pay cash. Satisfying puritanical finger-pointers and hissers (who of course will have abortions themselves) is not politics, it is madness (will never happen..). The whole political class knows this; they collude in pushing these idiocies and addressing these fantasies as it covers up their own interests and games.

Let the people play with dumb stuff, push religion, create artificial divisions and get on with the job. Whatever that is.

Ana: The US goes through periodic religious revivals, fed by the right. We are just coming out of one (I hope). Don't know why.

It is normal for a species to try to push out the things that it feels are not part of the whole. Ants do it with the sick and dying so they wont drag down their system. I am a Republican but I dont ascribe myself nor do most others to this nutcase notion of anti gay, anti everything. Believe me when I say I have been pushed on before. I am a right of center Republican but not hard right as our religious fundamentalist end.

Ana in the US the women have the right to use birth control and also the right to choose not to giving rise to welfare babies. I get the bill because someone didnt have the courtesy to use a condom, the pill or contraceptive foams and devices? I for one dont want to subisidize abortions with taxpayer money but then again I dont want to have to pay for 20 years of welfare for that kid. Thats not healthcare. Thats bullshit. Let responsibility lie where it began. To assert that Unicare is the only way to stop the disease and other healthcare problems is absurd. It certainly doesnt in Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, UK or Canada. You are just as sick there as you are here and a lot of the stuff now isnt being covered in those countries now.

Abortion-I for one have to turn away when someone from my party starts talking up abortion because of this and the second reason. The second reason is that if we outlaw it they will end up in the back alleys and then we lose two rather than one. I dont like the math, but then again RU-486 was a hot button too. Me I think like Revere on this one. Everyone has the right to obtain health care. We diverge when someone asserts that someone else should have to pay for it, for you. The idea is that the money in your pocket belongs to someone else and thats just wrong. Its not taxes, its legalized theft because someone thinks that they should have healthcare at your expense.

The Sermonette is very good as usual. We have both sides talking out of their religious mouths. H. Ford here in Tenn is in what is supposed to be the dirtiest race out there for the Senate. His ad about burning too much gas is in front of an Exxon station, while filing up an SUV. Someone didnt think that one thru. He has an ad inside of a church but is busy hanging out in the Playboy mansion with girls hanging off of him and posing for pictures. Hey if I run can I hang out in the mansion with Hef and the girls?

Is religion out of whack and so attached to conservatives? I dont know. All I can see is that gay priests are in positions of authority and the Catholic Church is just about bust from all of the lawsuits and that is hypocrisy with a capital H. I for one am Episcopal but also believe that many of these people who stand up and say, "I am" Insert religion into the xxx's. Notice there were triple x's. How to maintain one 's faith in the middle of all the horsepuck?

I also konw that the foundations of this country are based in religion but also in the right to believe what you want baby. Those that would beat Revere up for his belief system might also remember that of all the people out there, I find his non-religion religion to be the closest to the faith of our forefathers. He just doesnt use the "G" word. I will and God bless him and the memory of JFK. Revere walks the walk.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

We're enjoying our New Life moment here at Ground Zero. At least Pastor Ted was not exploiting the altar boys and girls though his hypocrisy is beyond the pale even for an evangelical. Dobson is next.

Goddamn gurus - they're all alike; feet of clay joined at the sacrum.

By tympanachus (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

Well apparently the IRS has stepped into the fray regarding religion and politics, and put out a list of rules regarding politicking that churches must now follow. Interestingly, the event that started this was when the pastor of a liberal church in Pasadena gave a sermon condemning Bush's policies in Iraq shortly before the 2004 election. The IRS came down on him hard, but in so doing had to also then make the rules fair across the board, putting the same strictures in on the religious right that supports Bush. So, revere, it looks like you might be, left. The religious influence on American politics no longer has the free and easy hand it's had the last two presidential elections.
Here's a link to one of the stories about it.…

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

Tymp - I think you misspelled scrotum.

Randy - I think it is interesting that the opponent of Ford in Tennessee and the opponent of the Demo candidate for US Representative in the MO 6th, where I live, ran essentially the same ad at the same time. In the Missouri case, Rubberstamp Sam ran an ad accusing his opponent of being a pornographer because she sold advertizing for Omni magazine, which was owned by the corporation that also owned Penthouse. I likened that to accusing every farmer in Atchinson County, MO (where Sam is a farmer) of being a drug lord because pot grows wild in every fence row there.

On the general situation - we see the result of the Karl Rove strategy of "energizing the base" (which he co-opted by telling them what they longed to hear and then mostly ignored them after the election was over) coupled with his efforts to drive anybody who had a coherent thought about the elections away from the polls with a deluge of negative ads.

Tell me this, when did you last hear any ad describing what a candidate wanted to do, as opposed to one describing how bad his/her opponent was?

I have expounded on this before. It is the cancerous effect of money. This election will cost over $2 Billion, and the vast majority of that money will be donated by rich people, organizations and corporations.

The fix requires a Constitutional amendment (Thanks to the Supreme Court's decision that money is speech) that says that, for the purposes of election advertising, only speech is speech.
1. Anyone can say anything they want, so long as it isn't libelous, but they have to say it themselves.
2. The only people that can contribute to a political campaign are people who can vote in that campaign. Since Unions and Corporations and Political Action Comittees can't vote, they can't contribute. That also means that Bill Gates can't contribute to a candidate in my home district, because he doesn't live in the Missouri 6th. I don't have anything to say about who gets elected Senator from Washington, and Bill has no voice in the Missouri Senate race. Contributions would be limited to $1000 per election. You could give Senator Smirk a grand for his primary run and another grand for the general, but that's all.You might even do a sliding scale. A grand for National elections, $500 for statewide elections, $250 for Regional (US & State Representative and State Senate) elections, and $100 for local races. After all, what's my mayoral candidate gonna do with a grand? (I live in a town with a population under 5000)
3. Finally, all broadcast media are licensed to use the Public's airwaves in the Public's interest. Part of that interest includes providing every candidate who gets on the ballot with (x) many minutes of air time in 15 or 30 or 60 minute blocks. Again, the sliding scale might apply. No 30 second attack ads. None given, none bought. I have the feeling that if a candidate went on the air and spent an extended time deriding his opponent, and didn't say anything about what (s)he intended to do if elected, it would do them more harm than good.

That's my plan. It won't pass, because it would seriously take money away from the people who would have to pass it, and it would put them on a level playing field with challengers. But it would be fun.

Remember to vote on Tuesday.
If you don't vote, don't bitch.

For Mr. Kruger I'd like to point out that some public health issues do need to be paid out of your pocket if the person receiving the benefit cannot pay.

We cannot allow someone with an infectious condition to go untreated because that person will infect others. Now, maybe the index case is someone that you regard as unworthy of charity, but the fact is, if that person is not treated and happens to cough in your direction as you walk into Macy's without dropping any change in his or her hat, suddenly his or her health problem is your health problem.

It is not unfair to ask those who are capable of paying to pay for maintenance of the social commons in order to keep that commons safe and orderly. Long term it is more cost-effective to operate in this way than to leave the poor to their fate.

I would also like to point out that health care costs are responsible for slightly more than 50% of this nations yearly bankruptcy declarations. The sick may start out able to pay, but their illness soon robs them of this ability by robbing them of the ability to work, leaving them without the remainder of care that might otherwise have saved them.

Unless you mean that only those who can survive on their investments without working are worthy of medical care, there's no way to avoid having to pay for someone else. And if you do think only those who survive on investments should survive if they get sick, then I suspect those folk will soon see the value of their investments fall to nil as workers and skills are lost over time.

I'm not accusing you of holding these views (which are more extreme than your actual statements), merely amplifying on what you *did* say to make a point.

By Lisa the GP (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

I think you would agree Lisa that there is this thing called "life as we know it." There are those who think that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be provided. I would disagree about that health care cost causing the bankruptcies.. I will research that and get the statistics but I would submit that its more because they were already overloaded and then something like that hits. As for infectious, I am not paying to treat someone that goes to the hospital for a pregnancy, or one that has cancer and neither of those are infectious. Look all I am saying is that I paid about 64,000 last year and I get less care from my PPO than the illegal alien off the street does. I am prety much tired of that crap. I work my ass off and probably so do you but we are all responsible for this thought that healthcare is a RIGHT and not a privilege. Get past that and we have a discussion. Does a pygmy in Africa have the right to healthcare? He probably doesnt know what it is. But its the old why should I work for what I need if its just going to be given to me? Then over time, that which is given is slowly taken back as the system reaches a state of equilibrium. I just saw the state take it on the chin for 500 million in TN under this health care system. The Democrat governor had to dump people off of it in wheelchairs with cancers hanging off their faces on TV. The reason for it was that it was banrkupting the state rather than the people who had it. I am not being mean spirited but you are a GP Doc. Ttake the amount of money spent and you tell me if there are truly many things beyond the broken arms and cuts and occaisionally a save that shouldnt have happened that are cost effective. 200K per year for cancer drugs? Give me a break. Bullets and knife wounds now thats what doctors are good for. You can generally save the monkey if you can get him into a ER within 30 minutes to 1hour. But look at that cost even. Cop two doors down got tagged with an APR thru his kevlar and it shattered the round in seven places. His blue plan? Paid about 80% and even with secondary insurance they gave him a bill for 40K. He said he will be paying for it when he is dead.

They didnt have these nets that we do now and unfortunately as this population ages and everyone expects Medicare to pick the tab up, there are only 1/9th the number of young people now as there are boomers. Those kids will be saddled with our errors that the Gray Panthers want to put in now. More care, more so I can keep my Caddy or SUV or for some just to pay the rent and meds costs. It is the condition called life and I guarantee you that they dont get this in Sudan, Ethiopia, Algeria, Bosnia or Russia even. You get screwed equally and fairly and thats the way she goes. I have friends that are battling cancer and the system wont take over until they are completely broke now. Better get used to that. Doctors? Hoooweeee, they are about to see a drop in their lifestyles because the ability to pay is going to go down like a rock in under five years and be horrific in ten. Deflationary times are ahead and our kids are going to get the shaft as a result of "managed health care"

Scrooge? Maybe, but those days are coming faster and faster. I have made provisions to ensure that I dont worry too much about getting sick and dying. I have to worry about living. Thats far more painful.
Oh yeah, are you watching the deal in Nepal? .

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

Well I hope revere is right. But the religious 'revival' is a world-wide phenomena, though it is milder elsewhere, or perhaps not so visible (yet). In Switzerland, for example, the Evangelical community is upping its presence in many ways - directly following the US example, to augment influence and make some political hay. Some people are proposing the re-introduction of religious instruction in school, in the name of inter-faith dialogue. As if this was now 'necessary' because of 'misunderstandings' between the communities (read, Muslims are not integrated!) It is surprising to note how many bodies and people take all this seriously, blithely ignoring the separation between church and state and the 'laic' character of schools, enshrined, of course, in law. We will have intelligent design next, I can see it coming up.

I didn't intend to get into a discussion of abortion, it was just an example that touches politics and health via what is called 'religious' principles. M. Kruger, I understand you pov. - the limits of responsibility for oneself and for others is to say the least most complex. Lisa brings up some counter arguments..I would just like to add that in general, a health system which is fair, stable (doesn't change rapidly over time), and not too 'expensive' (either in direct payments or invisible ones thru high tax), represents a bearable part of income, washes these issues away, as people then generally don't feel they are being screwed, and don't worry too much; they then take the preservation of the common good for granted.

Ana: I don't think what does on in the US and elsewhere are exatlyt he same thing. There is the periodic religious revival going on in the US simulataneously with religious fundamentalism, which is a worldwide phenomenon. All the major religions have funadmentalists, who, IMO, are making a dying gasp against modernity. The secular forces they rage against are far too strong for them to succeed, but like many transitions, it is extremely painful for all concerned, including those of us they rage against. This will take decades but it will quiet down. I won't be around ot see it, but I feel confident it will happen.

Revere's last post here is very descriptive. Every generation or so the fundamentalists come falling out of the woodwork and the revival tents go up. Everyone has Gods answer for you and the PTL club was one of them. Preying on those that just really aint so bright in this world or easily led astray. I did a course in public speaking a few years ago and the prof there had put up a split screen of Unkle Adolph and a very well known slicked back hair charismatic fundamentalist church leader here in the US. One gave a speech, the other a sermon. With little exception including the hand gestures and movments they were the same. Then he played it without sound. You could literally become mesmerized by the two.

Me I believe, but Revere makes some damned good points about religion and the time to get real about it. He doubts that there is a God. But every couple of years all of the God surrogate warriors go out and sway elections and get into fights in the name of peace. To me this is the big challenge and that is that I have to take them on when I think they are full of shit. I am a pariah a lot of the time and I would be one of the first in the Inquistion to go, but I would take a lot of them with me in the name of God.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 06 Nov 2006 #permalink