In September of 1960 the nation was embroiled in an intense Presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. One of the issues that was particularly controversial at the time was religion.
Though it seems fantastic now, Kennedy’s religion was a focal point for many people during that election cycle. Many people thought his Catholicism made him an unelectable candidate. But does it seem all that fantastic? Didn’t people try to delegitimize Obama by accusing him of being a Muslim? And doesn’t it speak rather loudly that we’ve only had two Catholic presidents – Kennedy and Biden, and only one Catholic VP – again, Biden. For many people Kennedy’s religion meant he was untrustworthy – he answered to the pope, which meant he could not be trusted to make decisions on his own in America’s best interest. Though there were millions of Catholics in America, anti-Catholic sentiment ran deep in much of the country. So in September Kennedy addressed the issue head-on with his “Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.” Kennedy spoke to a group of (very skeptical) Protestant ministers on religious tolerance, church-state issues, and touched on everything from communism to the space race. It ended up being one of the most famous speeches from his career.
Kennedy begins with a plea for perspective. He opens with the observation that while religion is necessarily and properly the topic there that night, there were far more critical issues facing that election, such as the spread of communism in Cuba, poverty in the US, seniors and a health care crisis, families who had been forced to give up their farms, and the space race. Those were the issues that should have decided the campaign, and those issues knew no religious barriers.
But because he was a Catholic, and at that time no Catholic had ever been elected president, the real issues had been obscured. So he had come to state once again not what kind of church he believed in but what kind of America he believed in. This is a smart rhetorical move. It is moving the locus of the speech away from the point of disagreement to something the audience agrees on – religion is something that causes discord, but they can all agree on what kind of America they want. So he is moving the premises of the speech away from what is debatable to what is resolved.
He says he believes in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. This may not appeal to everyone in the audience, but he continues that thought – “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;” this appeals to the individuality of Americans and assuages fears that Catholics would be beholden to church hierarchy in decision making. And he concludes that longer thought by saying “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.” This is a broad appeal to our beliefs in equality. It might not immediately play to the ministerial society, but it sets the stage for the rest of his speech.
He says he believes in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish – where there is no one religion that is above the others, and 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.” This is a clever move. Once again, he is assuring his audience that the Catholic church will not impose its will on the populace by influencing public officials, but in doing so he also states that other religious groups should not do the same. He also champions religious liberty, which has long been a Protestant cause du jour, but puts in context of all religions – an act against one religion is an act against all. Because religious liberty is so sacrosanct, we must protect it at ALL costs from ALL directions.
Because, he clarifies, it may be that now we are suspicious of a Catholic, but someday the tables may be turned. Someday it may be a Jewish person, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian or a Baptist. He reminds us that it was Virginia’s harassment of Baptists that lead to Jefferson’s famous position on religious freedom.
Finally, he says, he believes in an America where religious intolerance will someday end. This has been an interesting list of statements so far – I list of “I believe” proclamations. This might not seem particularly notable but to a ministerial society such a format would be familiar. This would sound like a classic evangelical testimonial. A sermonic statement of faith. And Kennedy believes in an America 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.” This is Kennedy’s big-tent revival. He is preaching his sermon. He is giving his testimony.
And this is not only the kind of America he believes in – it is the kind of presidency he believes in – an office that should not be humbled by making it the instrument of any particular religion, nor “tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any religious group.” He believes the religious views of the president are the president’s own private affair. He should not impose his views on the nation, and the nation should not impose any views upon him.
This is the kind of America he says he believes in and it is the kind he fought for in the South Pacific and the kind his brother died for in Europe.
It is the kind of America our forefathers died for when they fled to escape religious tests that denied office to members of less favored churches. He says it was what they fought for when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom, and even the Alamo, which he had just visited. The Alamo was clearly an appeal to his audience of Texas ministers.
So he asks these ministers to follow in that tradition and judge him on his record in Congress and on his declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican and against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, instead of on the basis of the propaganda that has come out with carefully selected, out of context quotations from Catholic leaders, usually from other countries, often from other centuries, and always omitting the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state separation.
He tells these ministers that contrary to what is printed about him he is not the Catholic candidate for president; he is the Democratic candidate for president, who happens to be Catholic. He does not speak for the church on public matters and the church does not speak for him.
But if the time should ever come – and he doesn’t concede that it would be even remotely possible – when the office would require him to violate his conscience or violate national interest, he would resign, just as he hopes any conscientious public servant would.
So he doesn’t apologize for these views to critics of either Catholicism or Protestantism, and he won’t disavow his views or his church to win the election.
So he concludes – if he were to lose the election on the real issues, he will return to the Senate satisfied that he was fairly judged. But if the election is decided based on the idea that 40 million Americans lost their chance at the presidency on the day of their baptism, then the nation has lost.
But, if he wins, he will devote every effort to fulfilling the oath he will take, to “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, so help me God.” This is a profound ending – he has spent the whole speech talking about how his religion will not force him into any decisions, but it is with God’s help he will defend the Constitution. It is an appeal to the audience, for sure. He is not eschewing religion; he is just assuring them his will not manipulate him.
So Kennedy took a political and rhetorical problem and turned it into a virtue. Yes, he was Catholic, but what was really notable about this was that he believed in liberty and equality and respected all religions and the office of the presidency. He promised he could effectively separate his religion from his politics and his church would not be the arbiter of his political decision-making.
Forty-seven years later another candidate would find himself in a similar quandary about his faith and the election. In 2007 Mitt Romney was in a hotly contested race with Barack Obama, and his membership in the church of Latter-Day Saints was problematic to many American voters. In fact, leading up to his “Faith in America” speech there was a lot of speculation as to whether he was going to have a “Kennedy” moment, or give a “Kennedy” speech. How was Romney going to address religion in this election?
Romney’s speech “Faith in America” is interesting because he specifically acknowledges the “Kennedy-ness” of it. He says “Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” And he does some work to assure people that the LDS church would not mandate his decisions if elected president. But Romney takes a very different approach than Kennedy did.
Romney begins by saying there are those who feel religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. Those people, he claims, are at odds with the nation’s founders who, he claims, sought the blessings of the Creator. He also argues that the Founders discovered “the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adam’s words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’” So where Kennedy tried to separate his faith from his work and the state of the nation, Romney tried to contextualize all of that by his faith.
Romney walks a thin political line, here. He needs to affirm to voters that his faith will not exert undue influence on his presidential decisions, but his voting base demands that candidates be people of faith. So he tells his audience, “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begins.” But at the same turn he refuses to disavow his faith – he promises to be true to it and to his beliefs.
There is a reason for this.
He believes every faith draws its adherents closer to God. And all of these faiths share a common creed of moral convictions. Where Kennedy called for a strict separation of church and state, Romney called for more nuance, or a softening of those walls. He said,
“We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religions should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
“The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust.
“We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.” Romney states, “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty.’”
According to Romney, Americans believe liberty is a gift of God, not of the government. And Americans today have always known religious liberty, but it was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty. Religious liberty is especially precious. He describes the grand churches of Europe – and how empty they are. The established state religions of Europe have done no favors for Europe’s churches.
On the other extreme is religious terror – violence, murder as martyrdom, killing all religions with equal indifference.
Our religious vibrancy, liberty, and diversity has kept us in the forefront of civilized nations.
Our forefathers prayed together as they fought. And so, he concludes, “let us give thanks to the divine author of liberty. And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed with freedom’s holy light.”
So Mitt Romney gave us a very different picture of the role of religion in the public sphere. Where JFK assured his audience that religion would be protected but would not be a part of his politics, Romney assured his audience faith was sacred and inseparable from the American experience and therefore must be protected. Both men were trying to show how their faith would not be a detriment to them as President. These are largely seen as two successful speeches. But Kennedy won the election. However, I don’t think we can see this is a causation issue. It would be a fallacy to say that Romney lost because he couldn’t overcome the religious issue and Kennedy won because he did. Certainly we can say Kennedy DID overcome the religious issue, but it is a bit more complicated for Romney. What is essential is to recognize the races these men were running. Kennedy bean Nixon and Romney lost to Obama. Those are probably more important observations than just commenting on their religions.
But one cannot also not deny that religion was part of the campaign. It WAS and issue. At least enough of an issue that both men felt they had to address it publicly and specifically.
So why bring this up now? What, if anything, do Kennedy and Romney have to do with what is going on in the world today?
Kennedy’s argument was that the church and the state should be two separate institutions. They should operate separately from each other, without unduly influencing each other, and in that way they would both be protected. He says we protect religion by keeping it separate from the state. And specifically we protect all religions be keeping them separate from the state. Religion, he argues, is such an important institution that it can’t be sullied by involvement with the state.
Romney believes that politics and the state come FROM faith. Our liberties and our Constitution are gifts from God. But, he argues, all faiths are equally valuable. There should be a separation of church and state because the state should not establish a religion, but it is counterintuitive to think of the state and politics as being completely outside of the influence of God, because our freedom is God-given. Our faiths should contextualize our politics and our laws. The state has a more complicated and nuanced relationship with faith than Kennedy posited, according to Romney.
So now, let’s think about what’s going on today. Not too long ago we did an episode on Christian Nationalism, which is a major movement in American religion and politics right now. Not too long ago we did an episode on Christian Nationalism, but as a review, Christian Nationalism is ‘an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture, generally fundamentalist or evangelical. Scholars Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry assert that “Christian nationalists believe that the U.S. was founded as an explicitly Christian nation; that the country’s success is in part a reflection of God’s ultimate plan for the world. Furthermore, they claim that the “‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism ‘includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.’” Christian Nationalists are on the opposite end of the spectrum of Kennedy. They see religion and the state working hand-in-hand. The church is a tool of the state, just as the state is a tool of the church. There is no separation of the two institutions because they are both part of God’s plan to achieve supremacy.
So we have to think carefully about Kennedy’s and Romney’s arguments. First, in the current political climate their positions seem almost milquetoast. As we have noted before, the religious movement du jour is Christian Nationalism. This is the opposite of Kennedy’s separation of institutions and the extreme of Romney’s position that faith and liberty go hand in hand. Christian Nationalists would like Romney’s assertions that our freedoms and liberties are a gift from God but would reject the notion that all faiths are deserving of any kind of respect or protection. Where Romney believes in religious freedom, Christian Nationalists believe in theocracy.
So what we have here is a spectrum. We have Kennedy, who wants to separate the church and the state, and his faith and his politics and completely separate institutions. We have Romney who sees the church as something that contextualizes his politics and that our institutions are all a gift from God, and we have Christian Nationalists who see no space between our institutions.
We seem to be on a trajectory, and at the heart of that trajectory is the church. Now, the church is not monolithic. The church in America is very different from churches everywhere else, and in America there is a big difference between the Roman Catholic church, mainline Protestant churches, and Evangelical and non-denominational churches. But the truth is, some churches wield and awful lot of power. And as those churches grow in power, so do philosophies on church-state relationships change. In an early episodes we talked about the church and the rise of the Moral Majority. As we have said before, The Moral Majority was a political organization founded in 1979 associated with the Christian Right and the Republican Party. It played a key role in mobilizing Christians as a political force – specifically Evangelicals. The group was founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr. a Baptist preacher. Traditionally, Baptists believed in keeping religion and politics separate. Falwell changed that. Very quickly, the Moral Majority became one of the largest conservative lobbying groups in the US. The Moral Majority lasted less than a decade but the changes it made to the political landscape were immeasurable. White, Southern, Christians became one of the loudest, most powerful, most dependable voting blocs in America, and they were almost certainly Republican. For the last 40 years American Evangelicalism has allied itself with pro-market, pro-White, anti-woman forces.
But the conservative movement that came out of this period wasn’t JUST a religious movement. The Reagan Revolution was in many ways a small populist movement as well. This was an explosion of small government, if not anti-government sentiment. There was a focus on the “regular person” – a reliance on “common sense.” That makes people feel confident and comfortable – like they matter as much as anyone else, but it also devalues expert opinion. Rhetorically, the movement was about narrative, not argument. It was about the stories you told, not the rational point you made. It was very much about how you identified, not your logical argument. This movement was focused on identifying with “the little guy” in a personal way, not moving the needle in any kind of rational sense. And it was about the individual. There was a huge focus on the success and wants and liberties of the individual. That means the well-being of the community fell by the wayside.
And it was the combination of this Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution that birthed the modern conservative movement. Reagan, with his folksy common-sense charm and rejection of elitism (Reagan populism) paved the way for George W. Bush’s aw-shucks inability to speak but relatability to the everyperson (I’d have a beer with him!) which made room for Sarah Palin’s complete rejection of any kind of rational argument in favor of homestyle cheek and charm, which opened the door for Donald Trump – a complete disregard for norms and rationality. All of this was taking place within the background of conservative news and radio that continually encouraged listeners to reject the evidence of experts, and sometimes even of their own eyes, and believe conservative authoritarians and pundits, creating a paradigm in which truth was negligible at best.
And behind all of this was the church. Gaining political power and eroding the lines that separated the institutions all the while. So when you start to look at the seemingly wild pendulum swing between Kennedy and today there is a clear through-line. It is the church that has gained power and affected our politics.
Now, I say this as a person of faith. I grew up Southern Baptist, went to Lutheran churches for a decade, and am now a member of the Episcopal church. I just keep moving left. So maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive to this. As certain branches of the church gain in political and economic power, our politics swing wildly away from what I am comfortable with.
The story of Jesus is the story of an anti-establishment, transient, political and social radical. And the early church bucked every norm by living in common and sharing property and giving to each according to their need regardless of what they could give. That’s not the kind of philosophy that could ever go hand-in-hand with establishment politics. So if the church is wrapped up with the state, maybe the church has gone astray.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.