Geof Stone: "Church and State in JFK's America"

Church and State in JFK's America
Geoffrey R. Stone
The Huffington Post
November 12, 2009


On Sept. 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 today's 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 today's 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.


Geoffrey R. Stone