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President Kennedy speeking about religion in government

John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, faced opposition during his campaign for the Presidency from many Protestant sections of the US community because of his Catholicism. No President before him (or indeed since) was a Catholic, and there was concern about the role and Authority of the Papacy over Catholics worldwide, and how this would affect decisions made by JFK if he were to secure the Office of President. Specifically, could the Pope direct Kennedy to make decisions contrary to the will of the American people, and would Kennedy follow such directives. Essentially, whom would Kennedy serve: the American People or the Pope?

On September 12, 1960, Kennedy spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on this issue. Though speaking directly to the concerns of the day, some of what he said is still relevant today. To quote:

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--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 parishoners 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. 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...

...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.

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.

The posturing of US politicians (and those who seek political office) in recent decades, first by Republicans and now by Democrats, is a betrayal of the Principles upon which the United States was founded. The Principle of separation of State and Church enshrined in Constitution is one of the great gifts the US gave to the world. Indeed, the Constitution of Australia was influenced by the Constitution of the United States in this regard (our Constitution is a mix of the British Parliamentary model and the US model of Federal Republic).

The message of Kennedy is as important today as it was when he spoke those words. They are important for the US, as well as for Australia, which recently has tended towards "faith based" politics, though certainly not to the extent present in the US. Let us all remember and heed his words.


I would have included the audio of Kennedy's speech in this post, but I am unable to embed it from the source. The audio is located on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website, and can be heard here.


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Tags: politics


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Comment by Shlarg on September 12, 2008 at 4:45pm
No wonder he was shot.

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