Fifty-five years ago during the 1960 president campaign, John Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, had one of his finest political moments when he went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, and in a deeply emotional speech, confronted the accusation that as a Catholic president he would be torn by divided loyalties trying to serve the United States and his church.
The speech reflected Kennedy at his most eloquent, and it now has its modern equivalent in the Dec. 6 White House address President Obama delivered following the San Bernardino, California, terrorist shootings that left 14 dead.
The president’s decision to meet today with the families of the victims of San Bernardino terror attack reminds us once again of that link. Obama’s defense of the rights of Muslim Americans in his White House speech is as important for our era as Kennedy’s defense of what it meant to be a Catholic American was for his.
In the midst of today’s anti-Muslim hysteria, it is easy to forget the extent of anti-Catholic feeling in the United States in 1960. Robert Dallek, in his Kennedy biography, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, notes that unless Kennedy could overcome the anti-Catholic bias, he stood to lose as many as 1.5 million votes in the election.
In 1960 anti-Catholic feeling was not confined to a small group of religious zealots. It was given respectability by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, author of the 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking and the pastor of New York’s prestigious Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue.
Peale, who in 1964 was voted “Clergyman of the Year” by the Religious Foundation of America, was one of the most influential ministers of the postwar era, and in 1960 he led the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, an organization of 150 Protestant ministers which declared that “it is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests.”
Kennedy understood that he could not ignore the anti-Catholic attacks on him, and on Sept. 12, 1960, before an audience of 300 in Houston’s Rice Hotel Crystal ballroom and many more watching on television, JFK took on his critics.
Kennedy began his speech by saying that he thought that, from Communism abroad to health care at home, there were far more critical issues facing the country than his religion. But his ability to deal with those issues was, he conceded, being obscured by critics who were making his being a Catholic a disqualification for his being president.
In his speech Kennedy echoed Jefferson’s defense of the need for “a wall of separation between church and state” and emphasized his own belief “in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute.” Such an America, he pointed out, alluding to his World War II service, “is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe.” No one suggested at that time, he observed in one of the few moments of bitterness he allowed himself, that we might have a “divided loyalty.”
In a line that soon became the most quoted part of his speech, Kennedy then told the ministers listening to him, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens to be Catholic.”
But Kennedy was unwilling to keep himself at the center of his Houston speech. He insisted that more than his candidacy at issue, and he closed his remarks by observing, “If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance for being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser.”
The reaction to Kennedy’s speech and to the question-and-answer session that followed it gave him an immediate political boost. Kennedy’s confidence and poise, which would help him in the fall debates he had with his Republican presidential opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, came through in Houston.
President Obama has not gotten the same kind of political boost from his White House speech, only the third he has delivered from the Oval Office since becoming president. He has instead been widely criticized for not using his address to outline a tougher Middle Eastern strategy.
But the biggest backlash against the president’s speech has come from a Republican Party in favor of limiting immigration from the Middle East. Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned whether Obama was even born in America, has called for temporarily barring all Muslims from entering the United States.
In the current political atmosphere, the president’s speech is not likely to have the calming effect he hoped for, and as someone who is not a Muslim, he is in no position to benefit personally from his speech as Kennedy was from his. But none of this takes away from the history Obama’s words have brought with them.
Just substitute Catholic American for when the president said Muslim American in his White House speech, and it’s impossible to separate his thinking from Kennedy’s. Nothing makes that tie clearer than the end of the president’s speech when he talks about the founding of America and in his peroration goes on to insist: “It is the responsibility of all Americans—of every faith—to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose.”
Kennedy couldn’t have said it better.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.