>In the biography, JFK: An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek describes the atmosphere surrounding the famous speech that Kennedy gave to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 as follows:
Religion remained an obstacle. On September 7 , the New York Times carried a front-page article about the ironically named National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, an organization of 150 Protestant ministers led by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale; they said that the Roman Catholic Church, with its dual role as both a church and a temporal state, make Kennedy’s faith a legitimate issue in the campaign. Like Kruschev, one member declared, Kennedy was ‘a captive of a system.’ Although the clergymen were all conservative Republicans eager for Nixon’s election (and were guilty of transparent hypocrisy in doing what they said Kennedy’s church would do — interfere in secular politics), their political machinations did not cancel out the effects of their warnings.
Estimates suggested that unless this propaganda was countered and the anti-Catholic bias overcome, Kennedy’s religion might cost him as many as 1.5 million votes. The Kennedy campaign quickly organized a Community Relations division to meet the religious problem head-on. James Wine, a staff member at the National Council of Churches, headed the operation. Wine was as busy as any member of Jack’s campaign team, answering between six hundred and a thousand letters a week and uring lay and clerical Protestants to combat the explicit and implicit anti-Catholicism in so much of the anti-Kennedy rhetoric.
A highly effective and much publicized appearence made before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, on September 12 helped. Bobby, Jack’s campaign staff, Johnson, and Rayburn all advised against the appearance. ‘They’re mostly Republicans and they’re out to get you,’ Rayburn told Kennedy. But Kennedy believed he had to confront the issue sometime, and he wanted to do it early in the campaign so that he could move on to more constructive matters. ‘I’m getting tired of people who think I want to replace the gold at Fort Knox with a supply of holy water.’ he told O’Donnell and Powers. In fact, his knowledge of Church doctrine and ties to the Church were so limited that he brought in John Cogley, a Catholic scholar, to coach him in preparation for the appearance.
Although he saw his speech and response to audience questions, which were to follow his remarks, as a crucial moment in the campaign, Kennedy went before the audience of three hundred in Houston’s Rice Hotel Crystal ballroom (and the millions of television viewers across the country) with no hesitation or obvious sign of nervousness. The sincerity of what he had to say armed him against his adversaries and conveyed a degree of inner surety that converted a few opponents and persuaded some undecided voters that he had the maturity and balance to become a fine president.
This was not the first time that Kennedy had tackled the issue. Here is how Dallek describes the way Kennedy responded to reporters who asked about his religion when he first announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on January 2, 1960:
As for the likely debate to erupt over his religion, he also gave an unqualified response. He acknowledged that it would be a matter of substantial discussion. But he saw only one concern for voters: ‘Does a candidate believe in the Constitution, does he believe in the First Amendment, does he believe in the separation of church and state.’ Having said that, he dismissed the issue as one that had been settled 160 years ago and concluded that he saw ‘no value in discussing a matter which is that ancient, when there are so many issues in 1960 which are going to be important.’
In other words, Kennedy’s approach to the question of his religion was principled and consistent, and he expressed his views in a clear and forceful way.
But in her new book, Sarah Palin complains that John F. Kennedy has received too much praise for his famous Houston speech, because, in her opinion, “His language was more defensive than is portrayed today, in tone and content.” [p. 184]
Defensive!? In fact, Kennedy’s speech is much more accurately described as defiant than as “defensive”, and considering who Kennedy was addressing and where he was addressing them, his “content and tone” could arguably be said to have been downright combative.
Having been attacked very publicly by a prominent group of respected conservative Protestants, Kennedy went into the lion’s den, so to speak. He stood up before a gathering of hundreds of conservative Evangelical Texans. He told them plainly and simply that in America there is an absolute separation between church and state, and because of that, the fact that he happened to be a Roman Catholic should not be an issue. And then he asked them if they had any questions. And he had the whole damned thing televised. Live.
Since Palin’s characterization of the speech flies in the face of reality, we have to wonder: what is really going on?
And what is really going on is quite simple. First of all, Sarah Palin disagrees with what John F. Kennedy said on the question of religion in American politics. Kennedy emphasized the separation of church and state, a phrase that the Palinites would like to purge from American political discourse. But Kennedy went even further in his Houston speech, he said that this separation is “absolute“.
The religious right has never accepted the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state, just as they refuse to accept the Constitutional right to privacy (and, in particular, the right to abortion).
Secondly, the bigots who were attacking Kennedy for being Catholic were nothing other than the 1960 forerunners of today’s Tea Party movement. Kennedy succeeded in publicly shaming these bigots in a way that I doubt any 21st century American politician would be capable of pulling off.