What JFK really said about separating church from state

John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 — the speech that Rick Santorum … Continued

John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 — the speech that Rick Santorum says makes him “want to throw up” — was a turning point in American history.

By allaying long-standing Protestant fears about the prospect of a Roman Catholic in the White House, Kennedy paved the way for future Catholic candidates like, well, Rick Santorum, to run for national office. Rather than condemn Kennedy’s speech, perhaps Santorum should say “thank you.”



Senator John F. Kennedy answers questions put to him by clergymen of the Houston Ministerial Association in the Crystal Room of the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas, September 12, 1960.

Consider that in 1959, the year before Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, 25 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic, according to a Gallup poll. By August, 1961, that number had fallen to 13 percent. And today, public opposition to the prospect of a Catholic president is a mere seven percent.

Without Kennedy’s historic breakthrough, Santorum might well face today the kind of prejudice that still hobbles the candidacy of Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the nomination. Opposition to a Mormon president remains stubbornly high, with 22 percent of voters telling Gallup they would not support a Mormon for president – a percentage that has held steady since Gallup first measured this in 1967.

Santorum appears to be sickened by a speech that Kennedy never delivered. When pressed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Santorum said he rejects Kennedy’s argument for “absolute” separation of church and state because “to say that people of faith have no role in the public square, absolutely that makes me want to throw up.”

Following Santorum’s advice to “read the speech,” I am hard pressed to find anything in Kennedy’s definition of church-state separation that supports keeping people of faith out of the public square.

On the contrary, Kennedy did not back away from his Catholic faith, declaring that he would not “disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.” In the unlikely event that a conflict arose between following his conscience and following the national interest, Kennedy promised to “resign the office.”

Although Kennedy believed Americans are free to bring their faith into the public square, he warned against elected officials using the engine of government to impose their religion on the nation. This is the absolute separation of church and state that Kennedy endorsed in his speech – a separation that ensures government neutrality toward religion and religious autonomy from government:

“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.”

By taking his case directly to Protestant ministers – some of the most skeptical, if not hostile, voices challenging his candidacy – Kennedy sought to overcome the historic Protestant fear that a Catholic could never support separating church from state.

Contrary to Santorum’s reading of the speech, Kennedy articulated a vision of America where separating the institutions of church and state is the foundation of religious liberty. By ensuring that the government does not take sides in religion, the First Amendment levels the playing field for people of all faiths and none.

“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,” Kennedy told the ministers, “where all men and all churches are treated as equals, 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…”

We are not there yet. But thanks to John Kennedy, we moved one step closer to the First Amendment vision of full religious freedom. For that, Rick Santorum – and all Americans – should be very grateful.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.

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  • XVIIHailSkins

    With each day that goes by I become more convinced that reasonable people in this country will one day be thankful to Santorum.

    The viability of a majority religionist population in the most powerful country in the world is an issue that has largely been left off the table in American political discourse, but Santorum may ultimately be the one that forces it on us. I think that 100 years from now people may look back on the Santorum campaign as the one that finally shocked many lethargic intellectuals into activism, because if his delirious, apocalyptic, absolutist rhetoric won’t put the “fear of god” into rational Americans then I don’t know what will.

  • lynnlm

    “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.”
    JFK – 1960

  • SimonTemplar

    Do you count any people of faith in the “rational Americans” category?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    If they are willing to elect an executive that has read the book of revelations and the book of genesis, and believes what these texts say about how we began and how we will end, then no.

  • macnietspingal1

    I am so grateful for this article. I didn’t vote for Kennedy the first time because he was Catholic. And yet it turned out it was Kennedy’s management of Sputnik that gave female me B.A.’50 the opportunity to be trained by the B.S. folks at David Taylor Model Basin to learn all about FORTRAN computer software. Until then I could only be a Secretary, Nurse or Teacher. I guess it must have been President Johnson that carried out this type of program (or couldn’t stop it) because it was 1967 that I was first employed and trained as a computer professional. Back then Corporate America understood the USA economy as consisting of the Federal environment, the Commercial environment and the University environment. That’s how I used to talk to folks about Interactive Graphics based on blue-prints for ships hulls. Can you ever imagine that kind of discipline today? . I still live in that kind of environmental thinking. So he not only separated church and state, I’m Jewish, but also separated the entire economy environment. That’s the epitome of a multitasking brain. However, I was scared to death of the Catholics until 1994. It was 1993 that the Pope did his “Mia Culpa” about there hostile treatment of wonderful Saint Galileo It wasn’t until 2002, that Israel did the same for St. Spinoza. It wasn’t until 2011 that all Jews, Christians, Muslims and Atheists can read 4 Maccabees. Yes, definitely, IMNSHO, 4 Maccabees has everything to do with celebrating Hanukkah. Hope all Presidential candidates agree with me.