The Faith and Politics of John F. Kennedy

On November 22, 1963, the first Catholic president of the United States received the last rites at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. Until that afternoon, the young president had championed a balance of open personal faith kept safely isolated from public and foreign policy.

Three years earlier, candidate Kennedy had faced widespread evangelical criticism based on this same faith. On September 12, 1960, the then-Senator reassured an audience of evangelical and protestant leaders of his stance:

“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.”[1]

The fundamental complaint leveled at the notion of a Catholic president by JFK’s opponents was this could allow for an external authority to govern the United States by using the president as a proxy. Would the pope be able to dictate United States policy though papal edict under a Kennedy administration? The candidate’s response captured the heart of the issue for any politician who looks to a higher power outside of themselves for moral and ethical guidance.

Kennedy goes on to speak to the decision-making process. While the separation of personal faith and governance would be emphasized, in the rare event that the job called him to choose one over the other, Kennedy does the unthinkable by today’s standards —he pledges to resign:

“But if the time should ever come —and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any other conscientious public servant would do likewise.”

Whether this is simple campaign rhetoric or not, the effective line of 1960 certainly sounds different than more recent political statements that claim personal faith has no place in personal political decisions. Many present-day leaders are either falsely claiming that their faith has no influence on them or their faith is so nominal it has never impacted their decisions and actions. Either way, there is refreshing honesty in the dedication of an entire speech to the topic in 1960. No spin. No brushing it off as if one’s faith can linger like a fly-fishing hobby with no effect on daily life.

As our nation’s only Roman Catholic president to date (unless you count Jed Bartlet), John F. Kennedy spoke of a separated yet passionate faith. Even if you take issue with his application of the concept of separation of church and state in the rest of the speech, the modern person of faith must appreciate the blunt honesty of the 35th president on this topic. We can all learn a lot from his ultimate assessment of personal ethics in the life of the public servant.

Further Exploration on the Topic:

NPR’s audio and text of the full speech at: (Some minor errors in the transcription of the speech).

[1] All quotes taken from John F. Kennedy’s Campaign Speech: Houston, TX, September 12, 1960 as published in Aaron Singer, Campaign Speeches of American Presidential Candidates 1928-1972 (New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing, 1976), 303-307.

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