Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Enduring Costs of John F. Kennedy's Compromise

by Colleen Carroll Campbell


President John F. Kennedy was the first prominent American Catholic politician to confine his religious convictions and moral principles strictly to the private realm. His staunch defense of what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus calls "the naked public square" was furthered by Mario Cuomo, who used Kennedy's arguments to make the case for pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


32 – 37

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, February 2007

What role should a Catholic politician's faith play in his governing decisions? After dominating U.S. headlines during the 2004 presidential contest between Catholic Senator John Kerry and Methodist President George W. Bush, the question has emerged again. The midterm elections of 2006 swept pro-choice Catholic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi into the third-highest position in the U.S. government, cost the pro-life movement more than a dozen House and Senate seats, and found Catholic voters migrating back to the Democratic Party despite its staunch support for legal abortion. Pro-abortion Catholic and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has informally launched a presidential bid, as has pro-life Catholic Senator Sam Brownback. And the U.S. bishops recently released a statement affirming that Catholics must uphold Church teaching in public life if they wish to receive Communion.

The controversy over America's Catholic politicians connects to a more fundamental question confronting dozens of pluralistic democracies today: Should religious convictions and religiously-based moral principles be confined to the private realm, or should they inform our public policy debates? And what role must the Catholic politician play in articulating those beliefs and principles?

The most prominent American Catholic politician to address those questions was President John F. Kennedy, whose landmark 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association indelibly influenced a generation of aspiring Catholic politicians. His speech, and a later address by Catholic New York Governor Mario Cuomo that applied Kennedy's arguments to the abortion debate, go a long way toward explaining the trend toward compartmentalization of faith and politics that prevails among Catholic politicians today — and offer clues about how it can be reversed.

One of Us

The impact of Kennedy's speech can be fully understood only in light of the situation of American Catholics in his day and earlier. Ensconced in what has been called the "Catholic ghetto" — a pre-Vatican II world of May crownings, Corpus Christi processions, and Friday fish fries — Catholics were largely insulated from a larger Protestant culture that was deeply suspicious of their faith. Catholics had always been different from America's Protestant majority: They had their own schools and hospitals, their own holidays and heroes, even their own religious lexicon. In a nation shaped by the Protestant rejection of authority and tradition, Catholics looked to their priests, bishops, and pope for guidance on life's most intimate and important questions. American Anti-Catholicism had waxed and waned through the centuries — it reached fever pitch with the massive influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century — but Catholics had survived by relying on a closely knit religious subculture for shelter, support, and a sense of belonging.

That subculture had propelled Catholics to leadership positions in immigrant-rich cities like New York, but never to the Oval Office. Democratic presidential candidate and Tammany Hall political veteran Al Smith learned that lesson the hard way in 1928, when he lost in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover. Historians now agree that the nation's prosperity had made Hoover's victory inevitable, but Smith's Irish Catholic background did not help him. According to political scientist Lawrence Fuchs, an estimated 10 million anti-Catholic handbills, leaflets, and posters had been rushed into circulation within a week to defeat Smith. They reflected a widespread fear among Protestants that the election of a Catholic President would mean, in the words of an editorial in the mainline Protestant journal, Christian Century, "the seating of the representative of an alien culture, of a medieval, Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the President of the United States."

Thirty-two years later, when Massachusetts Senator Jack Kennedy was nominated to become the Democratic Party's second Catholic presidential candidate, much had changed. Postwar affluence had swept Catholic families to the suburbs, the G.I. Bill had sent scores of Catholic men to college, and one of America's most popular television personalities was Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose weekly show attracted 30 million viewers at its zenith. Even Hollywood smiled on Catholics: "Going My Way" and the "Bells of St. Mary's" had been the nation's top-grossing films in 1944 and 1945, and Protestant America had become accustomed to singing priests and nuns on the silver screen.

The Catholic Church of Kennedy's day, like the United States itself, was confident and self-assured. Kennedy embodied that confident self-assurance as no Catholic politician ever had. His telegenic smile, effortless eloquence, and keen sense of style captured the national imagination and represented our idealized vision of ourselves. He was an erudite man of letters who still enjoyed a rough-and-tumble football game with his brothers, a wealthy product of elite prep schools who reminded us of our duty to help the weak and the poor, and the dashing husband of a glamorous wife who never lost the common touch. For Catholics, Kennedy was all this and one thing more: He was one of us. Invested with the hopes of every Catholic who longed to be accepted in America, Kennedy symbolized the full integration of Catholics into American public life.

That integration would be tested during the presidential contest of 1960. Catholics delighted by the possibility of having one of their own in the White House soon learned that other Americans were horrified by the prospect. Many feared that a member of an international, hierarchical church could not fulfill his presidential duty to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. They worried that Kennedy's Catholic faith would lead him to flout the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom and prohibition against the establishment of a state church.

During the campaign, the anti-Catholicism that had lay dormant for decades re-emerged with a vengeance. Secularists warned of "fundamental" value differences between Catholics and other Americans, and suggested that the election of a Catholic President would open the door to theocracy. As Mark Massa noted in his book, Catholics and American Culture (Crossroad, 1999), Protestant fundamentalists harbored similar fears and launched a direct mail campaign to send more than 300 different anti-Catholic tracts to some 20 million homes before the election. Kennedy's candidacy was denounced by the nine-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and a host of other Protestant churches and associations. Clergy affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals and other Protestant groups launched a nationwide campaign of anti-Kennedy sermons to coincide with "Reformation Sunday" on October 30, 1960. Protestants opposing Kennedy were urged to wear buttons throughout the campaign season that said, "Stand Up and Be Counted" over the numbers "1517" — a reminder to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation that year by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.

Kennedy knew that he had no chance of ascending to the Presidency if he did not address the religious issue directly. Militant anti-Catholics would not be open to persuasion, but he hoped to answer their attacks in a way that reassured other Americans. His first widely publicized attempt to do so came in March 1959, when Look magazine published an interview in which he gave this quote: "Whatever one's religion in private life may be, for the office-holder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts — including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state." Kennedy then highlighted his opposition to federal aid for parochial schools and to an appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican — positions that he had reversed since his earlier days in Congress, when he had supported such measures.

Kennedy's comments sparked a backlash in the Catholic press. From America to Commonweal and to diocesan papers, editors criticized his views on church and state and his claim that parochial school aid was unconstitutional. Protestant reaction, meanwhile, ran the gamut. Some were reassured by Kennedy's statements. Others — including some mainline Protestants who had initially defended him — were alarmed. Episcopalian Bishop James Pike said, ". . . far from posing the threat of ecclesiastical tyranny, [Kennedy's statement] would seem rather to represent the point of view of a thoroughgoing secularist, who really believes that a man's religion and his decision-making can be kept in two watertight compartments." Presbyterian Robert McAfee Brown surmised that Kennedy was "a rather irregular Christian." And Lutheran Martin Marty opined that Kennedy was "spiritually rootless and politically almost disturbingly secular."

'Not the Catholic Candidate'

Critics of the views that Kennedy had expressed in Look soon found new cause to worry. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy delivered a televised speech in Houston on the topic of church-state separation. Standing before an audience of several hundred Protestant clergymen, Kennedy made the case for his Presidency by disavowing the influence of his Catholic faith on his political choices. He began by articulating a strict separationist reading of the First Amendment:

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 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.

Kennedy said a President's religious views are "his own private affair" and reminded the crowd that he was not the Catholic candidate for President, but the Democratic candidate who happened to be Catholic. He explained the relationship between his faith and his political decisions this way:

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 in 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.

Kennedy said that he would resign office if his conscience conflicted with the national interest, but added that he did "not concede any conflict to be remotely possible." Though these last statements were intended to assuage religious critics, Kennedy's proposed solution to the competing demands of faith and politics — that he would resign office if ever the two collided — only confirmed that this faith would be quarantined from his governance.

Kennedy's speech appeased many non-Catholic critics. Mainline Protestant and Jewish voters warmed to his candidacy. Secular skeptics applauded his strict separationist views. And though many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants remained suspicious, Kennedy had defused the power of their anti-Catholic appeals.

Catholics, meanwhile, had mixed reactions. Kennedy already had the Catholic vote locked up, and he proceeded to win the Presidency in a squeaker against Richard Nixon with the support of four in every five Catholic voters. But historians say many Catholic bishops secretly feared a Kennedy presidency after noticing his desperation to prove his independence from the Church, as demonstrated by his Houston remarks and hard-line positions against Church-endorsed policies.

For his part, Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen later said that he had vetted the Houston speech with Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, a leading American Catholic intellectual and chief architect of the Second Vatican Council's landmark affirmation of religious freedom. But most historians agree that Murray disapproved of the strident separationism that Kennedy championed. Murray did not believe that the Constitution called for a public square stripped of all religious rhetoric and arguments. Nor did he accept the privatized view of religion that restricted its implications to home and hearth.

As Jesuit historian Massa has noted, Murray endorsed a public Catholicism that allowed Catholic politicians and voters to engage in faith-based social activism and defend their religiously-derived principles in the public square. This public Catholicism was not consistent with Kennedy's pledge to expunge all traces of religious influence from his governing decisions. As Murray wrote in a 1967 letter to a friend, Kennedy had been "far more of a separationist than I am."

Kennedy's God

Though Kennedy's Houston speech surprised some Catholics, it was consistent with his upbringing and cultural influences. Catholics may have considered Kennedy one of their own, but he was closer in his views and lifestyle to Boston Brahmins than ethnic Catholics. His biographers have consistently chronicled his detachment from his Catholic faith. Groomed for secular success from an early age, Kennedy learned the faith from his mother but watched his playboy millionaire father routinely flout its precepts. He did not grow up in the Catholic ghetto or attend Catholic schools, except for one year. He was a self-described "Harvard man" who, according to his chief speechwriter, did not care "a whit for theology." Sorensen once said that in 11 years of working together, Kennedy had never shared his views on man's relation to God. That would not have surprised Boston Archbishop and Kennedy family friend Richard Cardinal Cushing, who openly acknowledged that Kennedy was never very religious. Nor would it have surprised Jackie Kennedy, who reportedly told journalist Arthur Krock that the religious controversy surrounding her husband mystified her because, she said, "Jack is such a poor Catholic."

Many biographers suggest that Kennedy's religious views were essentially Deist, like those of Jefferson, the founding father he quoted so often. Kennedy believed in God and attended Mass regularly, but he was more attracted to the American ideal of the independent, self-made man than the Catholic ideal of the humble, obedient servant of God. As Lawrence Fuchs notes in his book, John F. Kennedy and American Catholicism (Meredith, 1967), many of Kennedy's favorite writers had been zealous anti-Catholics and one of his favorite poems, William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," reads more like an agnostic manifesto than a Christian one. In the poem, Henley thanks "whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul," and concludes with these lines: "It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

Kennedy's political rhetoric sometimes echoed these sentiments. He frequently sang the praises of liberalism, which he defined as "faith in man's ability . . . reason and judgment" and he identified the human mind as "the source of our invention and our ideas." Rather than a personal God intimately involved in and concerned with the affairs of his creatures, Kennedy's God kept his distance from the world he had created. As Kennedy told one audience: "Our problems are manmade — therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." In Kennedy's theology, there seemed to be little emphasis on the fallen world, or original sin, or the radical reliance on God's mercy and grace that has always been a hallmark of Christian orthodoxy.

Kennedy's innovation was not merely his Deist ideas about God. After all, several of America's founding fathers appear to have held similar views as they promoted a civil religion that draws upon religious faith to shore up public morality. Kennedy's rhetoric marked a departure from this notion of public religion and the beginning of the end of the public consensus about the role of religion in American democracy. His exaltation of man as the measure of all things and reason as the key to a perfected world left little role for the God invoked in America's founding documents. When America's founding fathers asserted self-evident truths about the equal rights and dignity of all people, and entrusted their grand experiment in democratic rule to divine Providence, they were making theological claims compatible with the traditional Christian and Jewish conception of the human person and his relationship with God. Those claims were not exhaustive; they did not enumerate the many and varied views that Americans held about God and man. But they conformed to the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian tradition and advanced a vision that most Americans accepted as true. Kennedy's rhetoric diverged from that framework, and the strict compartmentalization between faith and politics that he championed contrasted with the traditional Christian ideal of a public servant whose faith guides and informs his political decisions.

The Naked Public Square

It is possible that Kennedy was more the victim of poor catechesis than the willing agent of a secular shift in American politics. It is also likely that his Houston speech was motivated more by political pragmatism than by theological conviction. Whatever his motives, his speech and subsequent political victory marked the beginning of a new era of secularization in American politics and shaped a new generation of Catholic politicians, many of whom modeled their own compromise between faith and politics on his. Kennedy's electoral success, coupled with postwar affluence and drastic changes in the Catholic Church that followed the Second Vatican Council, marked the end of the Catholic ghetto and the coming of age of American Catholicism. But the cultural and political victory that Kennedy had won for Catholics came at a steep price: The creation of what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has called "the naked public square."

It is a sanitized space where political arguments are unwelcome if they spring from religious conviction, appeals to once self-evident truths are neither embraced nor challenged but reflexively dismissed as mere opinion, and debates about life's most fundamental questions are ruled out of bounds before they can begin. In the naked public square, the division between faith and reason, God and man, private truth and the public ethic is absolute and impermeable.

The answer Kennedy offered in Houston to the challenge of religious pluralism — that religion should be relegated to the private realm and deprived of its meaning-making role in American democracy — soon came to dominate American public life. That domination was facilitated by the enthusiastic promotion of strict separationism among secular elites in the academy, media, and judiciary. It was also connected to the social upheaval of the 1960s that unraveled the nation's rough consensus on religion and morality.

The collapse of that consensus was, in many ways, a natural consequence of religious pluralism. When confronted with so many competing worldviews and truth claims, many Americans came to see the privatization of religion as an easier solution to political and cultural stalemates than consensus-building. Privatization allows us to consign religion and its mores to an intimate sphere of life where they can offer therapeutic benefit to their practitioners without infringing on others' rights.

But the privatization of religion ultimately fails as a response to religious pluralism because of the moral relativism at its core, which denigrates reason as well as faith, and acknowledges no universal truths. The privatization of religion does not simply prevent religious conflicts in the public square; it prevents the most fundamental form of deliberation necessary to the functioning of a democracy: honest debates about right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood.

These debates need not be explicitly sectarian, but they are always essentially religious, because they are about questions of ultimate meaning. What else, after all, is at the core of our disputes about embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage? Such disagreements arise from competing ideas about the value of human life, the meaning of human sexuality, and whether and how we can know moral truth. Even those who claim no religious affiliation or belief in any moral absolutes belie their own self-proclaimed neutrality when they insist on the rightness of their position and on the adoption of laws that reflect their own laissez-faire or morally relativistic views.

No one comes to the public square without an agenda, a set of values, and a worldview. To deprive some Americans of their right to make political arguments from religious conviction or to insist on a separation of church and state so absolute that it expunges all traces of theism and religious influence from the public square does not create a neutral zone for civil discourse. It creates an unconstitutional obstacle to civic participation for the vast majority of Americans whose worldview is religiously informed. And it hands strident secularists a de facto victory before the debate ever begins, since religious Americans are told that they must argue from secular assumptions if they want to be heard at all.

This situation leads to something far worse than unfair debates or vapid political discourse. It promotes what Pope Benedict the Sixteenth has called a "dictatorship of relativism" where all of life, not merely public life, is dominated by the a priori rejection of religious belief and any claim to moral truth. As Neuhaus notes in his book, The Naked Public Square (Eerdmans, 1984), the banishment of religious belief and religious actors from the public square creates a power vacuum to be filled by a totalitarian state. The most potent check on state power is religion, after all: Religious institutions and believers assert absolute values that challenge the supremacy of the state and defend human rights that cannot be legitimately revoked by manmade laws or majority vote. When religious actors are removed from the public square, the state assumes the power to define absolute values. In the case of a thoroughly secularized society, the state may simply say that all values are relative — a claim that, in itself, becomes absolute by virtue of the state's authority. So the religion of relativism, in which any opinion is allowed except one that is believed to be universally true, becomes the established religion imposed at the price of our freedom, our rights, and our democracy.

The Cuomo Alibi

So how does all of this relate to today's controversies about Catholic politicians? The answer lies in another landmark speech delivered by a Catholic politician who applied Kennedy's logic to the most contentious political issue of our day: abortion.

The year was 1984, and Catholic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice-president on the Democratic ticket headed by former Vice President Walter Mondale. John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, had recently told a reporter that he did not believe a Catholic could, in good conscience, support legal abortion. Mario Cuomo, like Ferraro, did. So with an eye toward his own potential presidential candidacy, Cuomo set out to make the case for pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Speaking at the University of Notre Dame one day after the 24th anniversary of Kennedy's Houston speech, Cuomo drew on moving rhetoric and lawyerly dexterity to expand Kennedy's bifurcation of private faith and public life to the abortion debate. He assured his listeners that he accepted Catholic teaching that abortion is wrong and is "a matter of life and death" with "unique significance." Then he argued that Catholic politicians like him — who support legal abortion and, in his case, taxpayer funding of abortion — are not betraying Catholic principles but are simply refusing to impose their views on others in the absence of a political consensus against abortion. Stipulating that there are "no final truths," Cuomo told his audience this: "[T]he Catholic Church's actions with respect to the interplay of religious values and public policy make clear that there is no inflexible moral principle which determines what our political conduct should be." Cuomo said that opposition to abortion in theory need not translate into opposition in public policy, since it is unclear which policy, if any, would actually stop abortion. He concluded by citing the "seamless garment" proposed by Chicago Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and arguing that abortion is merely one issue among many that has no "preemptive significance."

Since Cuomo's arguments have been parroted in pro-choice Catholic stump speeches for more than 20 years, they merit scrutiny. His first claim — that Catholic politicians who seek to limit or outlaw access to abortion are improperly imposing their beliefs on others — defies common sense. Every politician attempts to use his political power to influence policy and impose his political will. For a Catholic politician to claim that he can do so on other issues but not on abortion is a dodge. Cuomo later admitted as much, when he complained to a PBS reporter that the U.S. bishops had not given him enough credit for repeatedly bucking the expressed will of his New York constituents by vetoing a dozen legislative attempts to reinstate the death penalty. Clearly, political consensus on capital punishment did not matter as much to Cuomo as doing what he thought was right.

As for the argument that respect for the sanctity of innocent life constitutes a religious conviction with no place in public policy, that might have surprised the authors of America's Declaration of Independence, which describes the right to life as "unalienable" and "self-evident." Cuomo's claim also contradicts Catholic teaching, which holds that respect for innocent life is not a peculiarly sectarian principle but a precept of the natural moral law accessible to everyone by reason, and for that reason, Catholic politicians have a duty to defend it. Church teaching acknowledges that there may be legitimate diversity of opinion about which anti-abortion measures are most effective. But doing nothing, or actively promoting abortion while blaming some purported pro-abortion consensus for one's policies, is unacceptable.

Cuomo's attempt to justify his support for abortion with Bernardin's "seamless garment" argument is also unconvincing. Bernardin stressed that the right to life is fundamental to all other rights, and therefore must take moral precedence over other issues. The U.S. bishops have emphasized that point repeatedly, as in their 1998 statement, "Living the Gospel of Life," where they identified opposition to abortion and euthanasia as the indispensable foundation of efforts to build a culture of life and noted that "being 'right"' on other issues "can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life."

Catholic teaching has always recognized a hierarchy of values in which some issues outweigh others because they concern acts that are regarded as intrinsically evil — that is, always and everywhere wrong. These "non-negotiable" issues are distinguished in Catholic theology from those which must be judged according to circumstances. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, wrote to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2004: "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia . . . While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

A Sign of Contradiction

Cuomo's speech may have been riddled with errors and fallacies, but for Catholic politicians who wanted to please the powerful pro-abortion lobby without forfeiting the Catholic vote, it was music to their ears. We heard echoes of Cuomo's arguments and Kennedy's compromise in 2004, when Kerry answered critics of his 100 percent voting score from the National Abortion Rights Action League by telling The New York Times: "I'm not a church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic Church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am."

Kerry was wrong on several counts. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council and there was no Pope Pius XXIII. More importantly, Catholic teaching holds that a Catholic must form his conscience in accord with the truth as revealed in Scripture and authoritative Church teaching. Willfully to dissent from a fundamental moral precept and cling to one's own poorly formed conscience is not viewed by the Church as an act of integrity; it is a mortal sin. As St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and a handful of other bishops have pointed out, Catholic politicians who commit such a sin scandalize the faithful and forfeit their right to Holy Communion.

Though the Catholic controversy may have cost Kerry the support of weekly churchgoers in 2004, it had little discernible impact on the 2006 midterm elections. Churchgoing Catholics appear more willing than other Catholics to vote pro-life but the distinctiveness of the overall Catholic vote has become another casualty of the political assimilation that Kennedy pioneered.

Perhaps the true lesson of Kennedy's Houston speech is this: A commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church challenges Catholics to stand as a sign of contradiction in the world. We can accept that challenge or we can reject it, but we must not convince ourselves that we can have it both ways. We can't. And that is good news for America and Europe, where the prophetic witness of courageous Catholics is needed now as never before.

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