How JFK’s Religion Changed American Public Life

President Kennedy shattered the stained-glass ceiling that kept non-Protestants from the highest political office in the land.

One of the most memorable moments of those fateful days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the haunting beauty of his funeral at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, D.C.  Kennedy’s Catholic faith played a prominent role during his lifetime and in the official ceremonies in Washington following his death.  It’s important for us to remember that for Kennedy, his faith tradition not only informed and influenced his personal identity, but also played a central role in his and all Americans’ public engagement.

President Kennedy shattered the stained-glass ceiling that kept non-Protestants from the highest political office in the land. Arguably one of the most important steps he took in that ascent was his famous presidential campaign speech before a group of Protestant ministers, in which he promised that as a Catholic president he would be a servant of the nation, not an agent of the pope.

Some critics reacted against this framing because they heard Kennedy as strictly separating the spheres of church and state, thereby undermining the role of any and all faith in American public life.  But we can move past such tired interpretations of Kennedy’s legacy if we reflect on previous public statements he made.  His was truly a textured philosophy, one that gave more than a little room for religion to exercise its graces and inform our politics and public deliberations.

At the core of Kennedy’s views on faith and politics is his conviction that religion provides the foundation for an individual’s understanding of the political order and concern for the common good.  Then-Congressman Kennedy’s 1950 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame reminded graduates of their obligation to serve their nation in public life.  While encouraging young Catholics to serve the common good, Kennedy hardly argued that they leave their religiously-informed beliefs in the living room or the pew.  Rather, it was these very convictions that would provide the tools they needed to govern well. “For the philosophy that you have been taught here at Notre Dame,” the future president said, “is needed in the solution of the problems we face, for it is upon that philosophy the American tradition is based.”

What was that philosophy that he believed found a home in his faith tradition?  It was the belief that the dignity of the human person, rooted in the individual’s ultimate obligation and allegiance to God, provided the ultimate foundation for ensuring government does not become America’s omnipresent arbiter, even in matters of private life and faith.  Channeling Thomas Jefferson’s thought and language in the Declaration of Independence, Kennedy argued that “Catholics can never adhere to any political theory which holds that the State is a separate, distinct organization to which allegiance must be paid rather than a representative institution which derives its powers from the consent of the governed.”

President Kennedy also foresaw the cause for legitimate concern that an ever more-powerful government evoked even then.  As government continues to amass control, always and inevitably in the name of doing good, it increases its potential to infringe on individual rights: “It is, therefore, vital that we become concerned with maintaining the authority of the people, of the individual, over the State.”

Though Kennedy could not have predicted today’s clashes over social issues, he did appeal to Lord Acton’s wisdom on the importance of conscience.  Quoting his fellow Catholic, and reminding the Notre Dame graduates that no matter how the state’s influence over our lives evolved, Kennedy said, “The assurance must be given that ‘Every man shall be protected in doing what he believes — against the influence of authority and majorities, of custom and opinion.’”

Kennedy’s Independence Day speech during his first campaign for Congress in 1946 also provided a reminder not only that Americans with minority opinions must be protected to live out what they believe, but also that religion plays a crucial role in American progress.  He cites Americans’ overcoming of slavery and, in his own era, the fight against racism as having “ever been inspired by essential religious ideas.”

At a time of unprecedented polarization in American politics, we would do well to remember Kennedy’s words that, “Inspired by a deeply religious sense, this country, which has ever been devoted to the dignity of man, which has ever fostered the growth of the human spirit, has always met and hurled back the challenge of those deathly philosophies of hate and despair.”

Today is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s funeral service at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington, D.C.  During a recent service for public servants, lawmakers, and judges held at the same church, Bishop Kevin Farrell told worshipers that “especially at this time of particular polarizations, we need to be reminded that we Catholics have every right to register what we believe in the public square and do it with pride and conviction.”  Bishop Farrell’s statements would likely find support from President Kennedy.

Some may recall that in his much-analyzed 1960 presidential campaign speech on faith, Kennedy remained so committed to the priority of his faith-informed views that he even hinted at Sir Thomas More, stating, “When my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.”

America at its best is a land of peaceful religious pluralism that respects religious freedom and the important voice that faith provides for its public servants in the public sphere.  What was true 50 years ago remains true today: America is a nation whose progress depends on religious people speaking out, not a nation where people of faith should ever be made to feel sidelined.  We will serve President Kennedy’s memory well by continuing to protect and preserve such a nation.

Image courtesy of IoSonoUnaFotoCamera.

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  • cricket44

    “…then I would resign the office…”

    Exactly. Remove himself from the situation, NOT expect the situation to adapt to his beliefs.

  • CCNL

    A former religious person speaks out to the new members of this blog and to TJ White:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Wildthing1

    Unfortunately these day religious freedom is defined as the freedom take away other people’s religious and personal medical freedoms as well as intimidate and hack away at rights until they are little splinters. Soon we could have demonstrators outside the houses of people living in some religions version of sin or getting invitro fertilization made virtually illegal by all kinds of extraneous laws and mountain of fine print.And contraception for anyone sold secretly on the black market for outrageous sums. We come along cay baby in forcing woman to risk their lives in favor of saving their baby to raise their family without a Mother.

  • Wildthing1

    and hospitals giving religiously censored medical services and treatment and getting public fund to do it.

  • northernharrier

    Mr. Whittle: you are not being honest. In a speech to a Ministerial Association in Houston, TX, in 1960, JFK said: “I believe in an America in which the separation of church and state is absolute.” He went on to say that religious freedom requires that policy be made based on secular reasoning.

    Mr. Whittle is further dishonest when it suggests that people of faith are being sidelined or ignored in policy debates and in lawmaking. Nothing could be more false. Nobody is suggesting that people of faith can’t express their faith or be motivated by faith in their beliefs and in their preferences for policy. We are simply suggesting, as did JFK, that you cannot have religious freedom and government involved in promoting religion, or making policy based on religion. That is what the 1st amendment says and that is what motivated Madison when he wrote the establishment clause (based on the philosophy of Jefferson, among others, regarding religion and law).

    Mr. Whittle: your intentional obfuscation of JFK’s beliefs and his reasoning is unworthy of the Post’s readers.

  • leibowde84

    I couldn’t agree more. This is an extremely misleading article. JFK was extremely adamant that “here on earth, our work is our own.”