In Defense Of JFK On Church-State


Rick Santorum’s comment that John Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the importance of church-state separation almost made him “throw up” gave us a tinge of nausea, concerned that he was misrepresenting an important issue.

Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president at the time, sought to reassure the nation that his Catholic faith would not prejudice his views on what was best for America.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy told the Houston Ministerial Association.

“I believe in an America,” he continued, “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish … where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Santorum, seeking to become the nation’s second Catholic president, told an interviewer on Sunday, “to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

But as the Anti-Defamation League and others noted, Kennedy was referring to religious institutions, not people, asserting that a church body should not “impose its will.” Clearly men and women of religious faith have sought and won office in every kind of election, up to and including the presidency.

American Jews, and other religious minorities, have benefited from church-state separation as a protection from persecution, and Jews today live more freely in the U.S. than in any other diaspora country at any time in history.

Widely criticized for his remark about throwing up, including from fellow Republicans, Santorum acknowledged later in the week he wished he hadn’t said it. No doubt he regretted his use of language, but his views have not changed. He has focused much of his campaign on social and religious issues, and while they are welcome and important, his tone has been more of a scold than of someone inspired and inspiring as a result of his faith.

Kennedy told his audience more than 50 years ago, “I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”

Those words were comforting then, and still are today.