But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations…”
1 Samuel 8:19
As I noted a few weeks ago, the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has prompted questions about Mormonism and the fitness of Mormons to serve in public office. It has also prompted references to the 1960 presidential election, in which John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was seen by some as a bar to the presidency.
The standard narrative—the way this episode is presented in high school history classes—is that Kennedy’s election was a great leap forward for American Catholics, and certainly it was experienced as such at the time. No longer were Catholics seen as second-class citizens; Kennedy’s election proved, to use his words, that “40 million Americans [had not] lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized.”
Early on in their candidacies both candidates gave speeches, both in Texas, attempting to head off the “religious issue.” While both speeches are rhetorically powerful, that of the Mormon, I’m sorry to say, is more nuanced and more thoughtful. Both Kennedy and Romney make the case that their religion should not disqualify them from office; that as president they intend to serve all Americans and not only their coreligionists; and that they are not spokesmen for their respective churches.
Seen in retrospect, however, Kennedy seems far more willing to bury his Catholicism beneath a bushel basket—and then douse that bushel basket with concrete—than Romney is with his Mormonism. To be fair to Kennedy, his speech in many ways reflects the era in which it was given, when American society was far more homogeneous and a much broader moral consensus existed than does today. American society was more religious generally, with secularism per se a negligible phenomenon, and mainline Protestantism still a dominant cultural force. Catholic identity was thicker—in ways hard to imagine for those of my generation—with new seminaries under construction, Mass attendance at around eighty percent, and the system of Catholic social services (schools, hospitals, colleges) still very close to their immigrant roots. Perhaps the nuance that Kennedy’s speech lacks did not seem, at the time, necessary.
Kennedy speaks in absolutes. For him, religion is purely one’s own “private affair” and has nothing to say to the great political issues of the day—the spread of Communism, poverty, health care, education, patriotism. These are “real issues,” Kennedy says, and “they are not religious issues.”
Of course, the events of the twentieth century—try telling the Poles that the spread of Communism wasn’t a religious issue—makes Kennedy’s analysis seem ludicrous when subjected to scrutiny. One does wonder how Kennedy could have maintained that combating poverty was an absolutely secular issue. Romney is much better on the subject, recognizing that many of the religious values we most cherish are held by a broad swathe of believers, but that hardly means that those values are not religious; he refers to the work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Matthew 25, which enumerates the corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry and all that). It would be far more accurate, historically and otherwise, to say that caring for the poor, tending the sick, and educating the young are religious issues in which governments have become involved.
Kennedy’s speech also suffers from his uncritical adoption of the weighted rhetoric of his anti-Catholic critics, a device that helps him as a candidate, creating semantic common ground with his critics, but harms the cause of religious liberty. Thus, he speaks of not responding to “instructions” from the Pope and of religion being “imposed”; he is even dismissive of parochial education. Nowhere is there any sense that political leaders could learn from any of the world’s great religious traditions or contemporary religious leaders. Nor that it is possible for religions to suggest or propose their ideas in any way other than coercive imposition.
Indeed, the path Kennedy’s rhetoric opens up leads to the marginalization of religious voices in the public square. Today when religious leaders exercise the free speech rights to which any citizen is—or should be—entitled, they are often hectored for violating the “wall of separation between church and state” and their churches are threatened with government sanction, as when Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) threatened to tax the Catholic Church because her bishops dared oppose federal funding of abortion. The implication seems to be that bishops are forbidden from speaking out on any public issue.
Where Kennedy’s speech fails most harmfully is in the implicit assumption that religion has nothing to contribute to civic life. He speaks of a day in which “there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind,” but such a reality would only be possible if Catholics (and other groups, religious or otherwise) did not hold common values that impacted upon their voting decisions.
Here’s the problem: I believe that the Catholic Church does have quite a bit to contribute to civic life precisely because she is the Catholic Church. No organization in earth’s history has cared for more sick people, educated more children, fed more of the hungry, provided more of what are today known as social services, than the Catholic Church. This experience, as well as our spiritual heritage; the historic commitment of our theologians to the compatibility of faith and reason; our universal, international—catholic—outlook; the ability of the natural law tradition to challenge cultural injustice; and, yes, our belief that it is worth doing right in this life regardless of the cost because of the life that awaits us after death: all of these things we bring to the public square. Other religious traditions bring other gifts to civil society, and our national life is tragically impoverished when these gifts are excluded without hearing because they are regarded as a “private affair.”
Mitt Romney is right when he says that religion, religious arguments, and religious voices must be considered in the great public debates of our time. Some religious beliefs should trouble us if held by a candidate, but Romney is right to point out that the greatest threat to religious liberty—and to religious pluralism—comes not from Mormonism or Catholicism or evangelical Christianity but from the “religion of secularism.” The rhetoric of Kennedy’s Houston speech sadly only feeds the overweening certitude of this blind faith’s zealots.
What, then, of the 1960 election and its place in the American Catholic imagination? The conventional wisdom that President Kennedy’s election was a triumphant moment for the Catholic Church in America, of our acceptance by the world, is, I admit, challenged by my analysis of the future president’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Far from ushering in an era in which the Catholic voice was at last accepted and even cherished, the Catholic “witness” in the decades since Kennedy’s election would be better described as that of a “house divided” rather than a “light to the nations.” A reevaluation of Kennedy’s Houston speech suggests that the achievement of political power in the United States by one of her own came at a cost to the Church in America. I would suggest that that cost might be described as a loss of identity.
Kennedy’s speech argues that there is no difference, as far as public life is concerned, between a Catholic and anybody else. And if this is true, the Church is not necessary for public life, not even desirable, and so—why the Church? In one of the Houston speech’s more memorable passages, Kennedy declares that he is not the Catholic candidate for president, but the Democratic Party’s candidate for president. In one sense, hopefully the sense Kennedy intended, this statement is entirely true. The Church does not nominate candidates for office.
But a possible implication of this statement—one worked out sadly in the record of Kennedy’s own family—is that one’s identity as a Democrat becomes more fundamental, more “real,” than one’s identity as a Catholic. When one’s party and one’s Church disagree, with whom does one side? Therein lies one’s God… or one’s god. Can we see roots of the lamentable political divide that plagues the American Catholic Church today in Kennedy’s 1960 speech? Do we dare consider the possibility that the achievement of political power might have contributed to the fissuring of Catholic identity and the erosion of Catholic practice? If we love the Church, must we not reconsider the meaning of one of our greatest “triumphs”?
For many American Catholics, the name John F. Kennedy is virtually synonymous with youthful idealism and hope. I myself am by no means indifferent to the hopeful glamour of Camelot—I was a Peace Corps volunteer after all—so it is not easy to ask this question.
But perhaps the Gospel demands it. Perhaps as Catholics we must accept our difference with the world, accept that our faith colors us differently than the grey individualism underlying Kennedy’s vision of the future.
Perhaps we must be more willing to live as exiles for a while here below and less eager to gain the world if it comes at too steep a price…