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Church and State in JFK's America

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On September 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of religion. At the time, many Americans questioned whether Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the Catholic Church. Kennedy put those concerns to rest:

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. . . . I believe in an America . . . where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. . . . That is the kind of America in which I believe. . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president - on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject - I will make my decision in accordance with . . . what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

It was on this basis that the United States elected our first Catholic president. Sadly, a lot has changed in the almost fifty years since Kennedy delivered that historic address. According to the Washington Post, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is threatening to abandon its social service programs if the District of Columbia Council enacts a pending same-sex marriage law.

According to the New York Times, Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, a nephew of John F. Kennedy, has been attacked by Thomas J. Tobin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, for his opposition to the Stupak amendment, which would prohibit insurance plans in the new health care program from covering abortion. According to Bishop Tobin, Kennedy's support of abortion rights is "unacceptable to the Church." He insists that, in order for Kennedy to repair his "relationship with the Church," he must obey "the teachings of the Church" and oppose any law supporting abortion.

The Catholic Church also played a critical role in the campaign to defeat same-sex marriage in Maine. Bishop Richard Malone spearheaded a parish-based petition drive against same-sex marriage, plastered church bulletin boards with anti-same-sex marriage messages, insisted on special collections at church services to raise funds to oppose same-sex marriage, and required pastors to preach that their parishioners must vote against same-sex marriage.

All this is consistent with official Catholic doctrine. In 2003, the Vatican issued two documents declaring that Catholic politicians have a "grave and clear obligation" to oppose any law that violates church teaching on abortion or same-sex marriage. Indeed, the Vatican declared that Catholic lawmakers have a "moral duty" to vote against any law that supports abortion rights or recognizes same-sex marriage.

We have a serious problem in our nation. Whatever happened to the America John F. Kennedy believed in? The America in which "no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials"?

This problem, of course, is not limited to the Catholic Church. I focus on Catholics only because of the sharp irony of Kennedy's comments. But Mormons, Evangelical Christians, and other religious groups have also been quite aggressive in recent years in their determination to mix religion with politics.

At some level, of course, religion cannot be neatly separated from politics. We are who we are as individuals, and we are in no small part the product of our religious beliefs and upbringing. But in a nation committed to the separation of church and state, it is incumbent upon each of us to try to know the difference between what John Kennedy called "the national interest" and what he called "religious dictates."

Freedom of religion in our nation means, first and foremost, the right of individuals to live their lives in accord with their most cherished religious beliefs, and free of government interference. It is not for our government to tell Muslims they must drink alcohol or eat pork, it is not for our government to tell Jews they must consume shrimp or work on Saturday, and it is not for our government to tell Catholics they must have abortions or marry persons of the same-sex.

At the same time, though, the reciprocal of that freedom is an equally fundamental responsibility. This is the responsibility not to use the authority of the government to compel individuals to live their lives in accord with our "religious dictates" that they do not share. Muslims have the right not to consume pork, but they should not use the power of the government to forbid others to eat pork. Jews have the right not to work on Saturday, but they should not use the power of the government to prohibit others from working on Saturday. And Catholics have the right not to marry people of the same sex, but they should not use the power of the government to forbid others from marrying the person they love.

As John F. Kennedy understood and stated so eloquently, in America "no religious body should seek to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace."