JFK, Obama and the role of religion
PITTSBURGH, PA (Pittsburgh Catholic) - When Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama spoke in mid-March about race, the speech was hailed as a watershed moment in American politics. Laudatory comparisons were made to John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, when he addressed head-on the question of whether a Catholic could be considered for the nation’s highest office.
Obama was sorely pressed to condemn the incendiary comments of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who, among other things, appeared to have cheered the attack on the World Trade Center towers, portrayed white Americans as irredeemably racist and saw the HIV epidemic as a white plot against black America.
Yet, while he did condemn Rev. Wright’s rhetoric, Obama refused to disassociate himself from his church or its pastor. He made abundantly clear the importance of his church to the person he was, and the importance of traditional black churches to the black community as a whole.
(While still largely bemoaning “the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.”)
One can argue the political strategies involved or whether Obama should have been far more forthright in condemning Rev. Wright. Those are political judgments that belong to the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and the concluding primaries.
But while Obama’s speech was compared to Kennedy’s speech to the ministerial association, he actually portrayed a much different perspective than the first Catholic president on the role of churches in American political life. And that received little comment from the chattering pundits on the Sunday morning news shows.
Kennedy’s speech is usually portrayed as a classic defense of a strict secular separation of personal religion from public life. Obama’s refusal to throw his pastor under the bus and disassociate himself from his church came closer to a defense of religion in the political arena than Kennedy would have thought possible. And probably would not have been possible by Kennedy because of the legacy of anti-Catholicism.
Bigotry: Catholics unfit for presidency?
When Kennedy gave his speech in 1960, he faced a very real problem of a normative anti-Catholicism in American culture. This was not primarily fundamentalist, old-time anti-Catholic rhetoric about Catholics worshipping the Blessed Mother and urban legends about the Inquisition.
Instead, Kennedy faced a sizable portion of the electorate and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant leadership in business, education, religion and politics that was convinced that a Catholic was unfit to serve as president because of his religious beliefs. It was a secular anti-Catholicism stripped of Reformation theology, grounded in the belief that because of their allegiance to the papacy and Catholic tenets, Catholics were not compatible with leadership in American democracy.
Practically put, as it was argued in Paul Blanshard’s postwar best-seller, “American Freedom and Catholic Power,” Catholics in politics would be bound by the hierarchy to restrict freedom of religion, eliminate divorce and birth control, and introduce Catholic dogma and morality in the public school system. The Catholic politician would be forced to follow the dictates of the pope in all matters of public policy, thus making America a Catholic nation under indirect — if not direct — Catholic hierarchical control.
Kennedy’s 1960 speech was meant to dispel these fears and has to be understood in that context. Kennedy, therefore, spent most of his speech not defending the role of religion in the public arena, but denying that his faith could or would play any role at all. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be Catholic,” he said.
Kennedy was at pains to privatize his faith, to assure his listeners that his Catholic faith would not impact on his public life. While never denigrating his faith, he was at pains to explain that, “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”
Over and over again in his speech, Kennedy denied much of any role for faith in the public arena. His speech was meant to mollify an audience that saw Catholic clerics scheming for political control through a Catholic president. Kennedy assured his audience that, “I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me.”
Catholics only need to separate faith
At least seven times in the relatively short speech, Kennedy disavowed any impact of his religion on his political views or his political conscience: “Whatever issue comes before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision ... with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to ...
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