Actually, now that I’ve taken the time — for the first time ever — to listen to JFK’s entire speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, I take it back about my statement that I "don’t much like the way Kennedy did it."
I was reacting to the shorthand description I’ve always read about the speech, which was that Kennedy essentially said, "Hey, don’t worry about me; my religious faith won’t inform the decisions I make as president." I had always found that offensive — offended that a candidate would suggest his deepest beliefs about the most important questions would be left out of his calculations, and offended at an electorate that would expect him to say that. And on another level, I just found it demeaning even to have to address all that anti-Catholic nonsense about the White House being run by the Pope. Personally, I’d rather lose the election than drag myself down to that level. It’s like answering a question about whether you’ve stopped beating your wife — anyway you look at it you lose.
But having heard the whole speech, I’m reminded of the danger of making conclusions on the basis of shorthand descriptions. (Example: Most of the discussion of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran the last couple of days has been based on the headline, not the more sobering substance of the report.)
The speech itself is so well-rounded, so erudite, so articulate, so thoughtful about the relationship between faith and political power in this country, that I find myself won over to a candidate who could give such a speech. An excerpt:
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
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 be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding it — its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him¹ as a condition to holding that office.
I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty; nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it.
I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all and obligated to none, who can attend any ceremony, service, or dinner his office may appropriately require of him to fulfill; and whose fulfillment of his Presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.
When is the last time there was a candidate for president of the U.S. who both
a) was intellectually capable of delivering such a speech; and
b) had enough respect for the American electorate to speak to us in such terms, with such depth and breadth?
Consider it within the context, though. If you look at transcripts from the Kennedy-Nixon debates, both candidates spoke with such erudition that it sounds like a campaign taking place on another planet. Both candidates were smart and unafraid to show it.
What I wouldn’t give for such a set of choices today (ah, the wonkish dream — to hear where today’s candidates would stand on Quemoy and Matsu!). The irony is that those debates are seen as ushering in the age of televised politics — referring to a medium that would in turn do the most to lower the level of debate.
Speaking of the way we dumb things down today, the link below is to a mere excerpt of the speech on YouTube. I highly recommend you go to the full video recording here — it’s not as easy to call up and run, but it’s more rewarding in the end.