JFK's privatized religion

March 6, 2012

John F. Kennedy's famous
Houston speech on church and state during
the 1960 presidential campaign elicited Rick Santorum's after-the-fact disgust. Though Santorum
misrepresents the speech in some ways--Kennedy didn't say anything about
limiting religious institutions and leaders from speaking on public issues--he
is right to find the speech theologically lame.

In trying to assure
Protestant voters that they had nothing to fear in voting for a Catholic as
president, JFK stressed that his religious views were "his own private affair."
He laid out his vision of a chief executive whose public acts would not be
"limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation."

Not limited or conditioned
by any religious obligation? In essence, Kennedy was saying that his Catholic
faith did not and would not shape anything he might do or think as president.

One imagines that JFK's
parish priests and catechism teachers might have heard that claim with some
dismay: You mean attending mass all these years hasn't meant anything? Nothing
the church says can have any influence on you? JFK's extreme privatization of
religion was noted at the time by some Catholic and Protestant observers
(including the Century, whose
Protestant editors were wrestling with their own deep reservations about
electing a Catholic).

Nevertheless, JFK
probably correctly assessed the political challenges that faced a Catholic
running for president. In the words of historian Mark Massa, Kennedy "had to
'secularize' the American presidency in order to win it."

The religious outsider in
this year's race, Mitt Romney, has drawn heavily on JFK's example, trying to
keep his faith off limits and suggesting that it's un-American to even raise the
issue. In his 2007 speech that tackled the issue head
on, Romney replicated JFK's theme of privatization while still celebrating the
public benefits of religion in general--something Kennedy didn't feel the need
to dwell on.

Massa's account of JFK's Houston speech in
a 1997 issue of the Journal of Church and
remains one of the best commentaries on that historical moment and a
brilliant account of JFK's role in the privatization of religion.