Fifty Years Ago…
John Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered the following address (reprinted below is a portion) to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, on September 12, 1960. He was campaigning for president, and many conservative Protestants opposed him because he was a Catholic. This speech is considered a classic exposition of American separation of church and state.
Reverend Meza, Reverend Reck, I’m grateful for your generous invitation to speak my views.
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida–the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power–the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms–an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.
These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues–for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.
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 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.
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.