I wish I'd posted this a week ago, because Sunday, September 12, was the 50th anniversary of Senator John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the separation of church and state, when he was running for President in 1960. Before then, no Catholic had ever been elected President, and Kennedy's religion had become an issue.
The text of this remarkable speech is available here, from the JFK Library. Even better, there's a link to an audio file there, so you can listen to Kennedy himself giving the speech. (Note that the spoken version differs slightly from his prepared speech, excerpted below.) I highly recommend it.
The first paragraph is merely an introduction, but it's fascinating, nonetheless:
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida--the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power--the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms--an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.
50 years later, we remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the landing on the Moon. But note also this phrase: "the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills." This was, of course, before Medicare, which was signed into law in 1965 by Kennedy's then running-mate, Lyndon B. Johnson. Thanks to Medicare, derided as "socialist" by Ronald Reagan and other Republicans, old people no longer have to worry about their medical bills.
But then Kennedy gets into the real purpose of this speech:
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured--perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again--not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me--but what kind of America I believe in.
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 parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
50 years later, this sounds radical, doesn't it? Back then, support for America's traditional separation of church and state was the default position in both parties (if frequently violated in practice). These days, even Democratic politicians would hesitate to be this firm, and Republicans have nearly abandoned freedom of religion entirely.
But John F. Kennedy believes in an America where the separation of church and state is "absolute." No pope tells American politicians how to act, and no minister tells his congregation how to vote. No church or church school is granted public funds, and we American citizens don't base our votes on a candidate's religion.
Even then, this was idealistic, but it sounds positively utopian these days. Still, make no mistake, these are traditional American values. Kennedy was no radical.
Kennedy does not mention non-believers specifically, except in this phrase: "where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice" [my emphasis]. And, of course, he doesn't mention Muslims, either. But ponder the spirit behind this paragraph:
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
This time, it was bigotry against Catholics. Earlier, it was bigotry against Baptists. There was always, certainly, bigotry against Jews and atheists. Bigotry against Muslims is no different, not in the slightest. What we are seeing in America these days is a bigotry that's profoundly un-American.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe--a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
Imagine that! A President's religious views are "his own private affair." It sounds almost quaint, doesn't it? Yet this was our America, up until relatively recently.
I blame Jimmy Carter for starting this nonsense of parading his religious belief, though Republicans have long since taken the lead on that. Still, every President these days must make a big show of how Christian he is - as if he's running for Pope, instead of President.
And even that doesn't do our first black President any good, with at least one-fifth of us loony enough to think that he's really a Muslim. How crazy is that? (I've asked it before and I'll ask it again, "What has happened to my country?")
Well, listen to John F. Kennedy's speech. It's a great one, well worth remembering. I wish I'd posted this a week ago, but better late than never.