Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Sermonette: the way we were

It was only forty-five years ago, but the difference from today couldn't be much starker,

Monday, September 12, 1960, Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced the Southern Baptists at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the subject of religion in American politics. Kennedy was the first candidate who was also a Catholic since the 1928 campaign of Democrat Al Smith. Smith had been astonished, then dismayed, at the vicious anti-Catholic campaign waged by the Protestant churches of the day. It looked as if the scenario was to be repeated. Kennedy had decided to take on the issue directly.

Here's some of what he had to say that day. The contrast with current candidates -- not just George Bush, the most flagrant and cynical, but also Al Gore and John Kerry -- couldn't be greater:
[B]ecause 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.


Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to 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 the pastoral levels, 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.

That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe, a great office that must be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon himĀ¹ as a condition to holding that office.

I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.

I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all and obligated to none, who can attend any ceremony, service, or dinner his office may appropriately require of him to fulfill; and whose fulfillment of his Presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.

This is the kind of America I believe in -- and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened "the freedoms for which our forefathers died."


I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views -- in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
You can read--and hear--the whole speech here, complete with its obligatory Cold War rhetoric. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior of the Old School, something for which I give him low marks. I am not a fan of JFK's. But these views represent the best of American democracy on the subject of religion. What we have today--primarily from Republicans but in no small measure from cowardly Democrats as well--represents something so much worse.

Of course we have seen worse, still, in our history. But it is disheartening to see that at the beginning of the 21st century we have not gone forward but backward.