Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

John F. Kennedy in Retrospect: A Damnable Privatization of Religion

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 22, 2012

When John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he faced considerable opposition from those who believed a Catholic could not be a good national leader, because he would be controlled by his Church (a Church which was regarded by the majority of Americans as not only a foreign but an alien power). Kennedy attempted to defuse these concerns and prejudices by appealing to a principle he himself fully endorsed, the principle of the separation of church and state. His exposition of this principle was delivered in his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12th.

Over the past fifty years, of course, we have seen the grave dangers of the abuse of American secularity to uphold not only the separation of church and state but the separation of religion from politics and the resulting subordination of religion to the State. The separation of church and state simply means that the Church and churchmen shall not rule the commonwealth and the civil government and politicians shall not rule the Church. But the idea that what we learn from religious teachings may not legitimately be brought to bear on political issues, or that politicians cannot ever be legitimately rebuked for their moral decisions by Church leaders, or especially that a Catholic political leader must close his ears to a clear teaching of the Catholic Magisterium concerning moral norms as applied to the public order—such ideas are the stuff of which modern secularism is made, to the immense detriment of the common good, including the denial of the spiritual wellsprings of the human person.

Now it is fair to say that Kennedy could not have had the same heightened awareness of the threat of secularism as we do to today, and it is fair to observe that much of what he said in his speech was clearly intended along the lines of a legitimate separation of church and state. But it is interesting to string together the things he said in his speech which went too far, which implied a false privatization of religion and a denigration of its role in public affairs. This will show why John F. Kennedy has been taken ever since as the very model of Catholic politicians who refuse to live their faith in the public order because, for them, it has become a private affair completely subject to their own emphases and interpretations.

Here I offer such an experiment, by condensing his text and adding italics here and there for emphasis:

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 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; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.
I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.
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.

Again, I emphasize that I have strung together in one series all statements which appear to me to go too far in one respect or another, and I have not marked where material is missing. But everything is in order, every word is from the speech, each clause is intact, and I have not altered the meaning of any of the statements by the omissions. In any case, the speech is easy enough to read in its entirety online.

Now I wish to make two key points about the deficiencies of Kennedy’s vision. First, the principles of morality which govern our mutual relations and public policies are available to all citizens through the natural law. Indeed, the Decalogue itself, except in the details of the first three commandments, is a summary of the key points of the natural law. But in fact we must often rely on Revelation and religious teaching to help us accurately perceive the natural law, which is difficult for our fallen nature to grasp, especially amid the pressures of our deficient human cultures. When the Catholic Church enjoins some basic moral principle upon us, she is articulating and enjoining us to adhere to the natural law.

To exclude this assistance from public life is the quickest way to go wrong on the leading questions of every age, including those of our own day: contraception and divorce (two issues mentioned by Kennedy as off-limits to Church influence), abortion, gay marriage, education, just war, subsidiarity—and much more. I do not mean that the Church can prescribe the best and most prudent specific policies by which such problems are to be addressed in the public order, but she can state clearly and unequivocably what is right and what is wrong, therefore marking out the direction the public order is supposed to be going with its policies.

Second, it seems to me that Kennedy’s model of a privatized religion that is purely a personal affair is exactly the model that has been adopted by a substantial majority of American Catholic politicians since his time—not only the rest of the Kennedys, but also the Cuomos, the Bidens, the Pelosis, and on and on. By assuming that religion is a purely private affair, they have denied the public and absolute character of the content of religious faith both in their own lives and in the life of the nation.

The only remedy for this is a keen appreciation of the Church as a public institution in her own right, an institution with a real authority in spiritual affairs, an authority which encompasses the correct understanding of both Revelation and the laws of nature. By this authority, the Church can instruct even the State, for whom she rightly determines the legitimate ends and means of civil rule.

When Catholics recover this appreciation, two things will happen, all without any violation of that legitimate secularity described by the separation of church and state. On the one hand, they will begin to be guided in the whole of their lives by truths which exist independently of their own preferences, truths which they cannot claim to take or leave, distort or twist. On the other, the nation in all its public manifestations will begin to be shaped by these truths—these same truths of the natural law which are clarified and strengthened by authentic religion in both the personal conscience and the public mind.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 27, 2012 5:48 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that you are conveniently moving “the bishop” out of the picture and putting the onus of blame on what any layman might do. This is inconsistent with traditional Catholic thinking that puts the heaviest burden on the clergy (which I think is most appropriate). The American Bishops have been negligent and American laity have had relatively more power (due to our society) within the Church for so long that we have normalized it. The bishops are primarily culpable.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 25, 2012 9:33 AM ET USA

    The difficulty is in nonCatholics accepting authority of the RC Church on the truth & logic of the nat'l law as teaching guiding principles and not a prescription motivated by politcal control. The difficulty seems compounded by misunderstanding separation of Church & State, freedom, and liberty. While our country was not founded on Catholicism, that founding was motivated by a common understanding of nat'l law between non-Catholics & Catholics. Why is that common understanding invalid today?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 25, 2012 8:37 AM ET USA

    "The only remedy for this is a keen appreciation of the Church as a public institution in her own right, an institution with a real authority in spiritual affairs, an authority which encompasses the correct understanding of both Revelation and the laws of nature. By this authority, the Church can instruct even the State, for whom she rightly determines the legitimate ends and means of civil rule." The recovery is a long way off until this reality is clearly understood, preached and lived.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 24, 2012 1:50 AM ET USA

    It seems that the Irish took their favorite son's vision to heart, as demonstrated by the chaos in the American Church in the 1980s and 1990s (at least where I lived) and in the Irish Church of today.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Aug. 23, 2012 2:48 PM ET USA

    I have (really) vague memories of my Mom saying that people believed that if a Catholic became President, the Pope would move into the White House. It was a very different time. For that reason, I doubt even a cynical politician like JFK had a clear notion of what he espoused in this speech; but all the same, it bore ugly and bitter fruit leading to the impingement of religious freedom we are fighting today.