Catholics in Politics and the J.F.K. Effect

Kennedy won the White House and inaugurated Camelot, but sacrificed the fullness of the faith in the process. Fixing it requires Catholics to be willing to be less at home in America.

Patrick J. Deneen
22.11.2013 // PRINT
Boston Library
Coming of age in the 1960s and early 70s, there were often two prominent pictures in the parlor of many of my older Irish-Catholic relatives:  Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy.  The one was the leader of the Church; the other, the Catholic who had beat the odds and become leader of the United States, a nation founded and hitherto governed by Protestants.  

Kennedy achieved what many American Catholics believed might never happen – acceptance by a dominantly Protestant nation that, from the earliest days of the American experiment, had mistrusted Catholics for harboring allegiances to Rome and believing in religious tenets in contradiction to the American creed.  

Kennedy is today best known for forging a path of religious acceptability that has been today embraced by many Catholic Democratic politicians, intellectuals, and citizens, who argue that Catholicism is a set of private beliefs that should not be consulted or advanced as public policy.  

Catholics on the political Left rely on the argument that Kennedy advanced in his Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his run for the Presidency on September 12, 1960, and which was further developed by Mario Cuomo in an address delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.

In his Houston speech, Kennedy sought to assure his Protestant countrymen that there was no conflict between his faith and his citizenship, between his religion and his oath. Famously, he stated:

“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 – 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…. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office….

“Whatever issues 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 dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Kennedy achieved the dream of his family and untold numbers of Catholics who had long labored under profound suspicion by their Protestant countrymen – as a result of promising that his beliefs would be private, and that would have no bearing upon the decisions he would make as President. Catholics finally had a President, at the price of a promise that his Catholicism would be irrelevant. This position was later echoed and developed by Mario Cuomo, who distinguished between his private Catholic belief and his duty and role as a governor in a pluralistic society to be guided not by specifically Catholic doctrine, but a widespread “consensus view of right and wrong.” To govern otherwise would be unjustly to attempt to impose a sectarian view on a (religiously) diverse society, and would potentially subject Catholics to comparable strictures when political office was won by an adherent of a different faith.

Kennedy’s position that Catholicism, for political purposes, would solely be regarded as a matter of private belief has become the main justification for Democratic politicians who, today, readily accept legal protections of abortion, stem-cell research, and the HHS mandate, and who oppose vouchers for parochial schools, among other positions. They treat Catholicism merely as opinion, and thus express a wholly fideistic view of a faith that (they surely must know) bases its claims as much upon reason as revelation.

But it was Kennedy, too, who advanced, in another speech, an argument that is today embraced by many Catholic Republican politicians, intellectuals and citizens, one that stresses the complete compatibility of Catholic tenets and America’s founding principles. In his commencement address delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 1950, then-Congressman Kennedy – speaking not now to a wary and even hostile Protestant audience while running for President, but rather to an admiring audience of fellow-Catholics while serving as Congressman – articulated a position that one finds today embraced by many conservative Catholics, from politicians like Paul Ryan to intellectuals like Michael Novak.

In this address, Kennedy expressed his fear – one he believed to be shared by his audience - of an enlarging and “all-absorbing … great leviathan – the State.” In response, he argued, “it is vital that we become concerned with maintaining the authority of the people, of the individual, over the State,” and that “every man shall be protected in doing what he believes – against the influence of authority, of custom and opinion.”

Citing Charles Beard (curiously, not Jefferson), Kennedy listed three premises that had animated the American Revolution: “that each individual is endowed by God with certain inalienable rights, that governments exist to protect these rights, and that when a government takes these rights away, the people must revolt.” Kennedy then went on: “This is precisely the philosophy which you have been taught at Notre Dame.”

Kennedy made this claim by pointing out that a “Catholic’s dual allegiance to the Kingdom of God on the one hand prohibits unquestioning obedience to the State as an organic unit.” That is, the Catholic belief in the City of God necessarily limits what can be undertaken by the City of Man. In his 1950 commencement address – here, clearly delivered in the shadow of the Cold War and the specter of the Soviet Union – Kennedy argued that the Catholic belief in a distinct and constrained political sphere in fact perfectly coincided with the Enlightenment liberal belief in limited government. In summary, and quite baldly, Kennedy showed the complete identification between the two: “For the philosophy that you have been taught here at Notre Dame is needed in the solution of the problems we face, for it is upon that philosophy that the American tradition is based.”

American Catholicism today – certainly in its political manifestations – is split between these two versions of Catholicism in America. The Left and the Right today have each adopted one side of Kennedy’s positions. The Left seeks to sequester Catholicism into the realm of private belief, and while its partisans will often claim personal allegiance to the Catholic creed, they deny that it should be consulted as a basis for governing. The Right seeks to make Catholicism and the American creed one and the same, compatible based upon fundamentally similar understandings of human dignity (and why, therefore, abortion should be opposed) and limited government.  

Both of these positions seek to achieve a common aim: to make Catholicism compatible with and at home in America. The Left turns Catholicism into liberal Protestantism, a private belief that should not be construed to interfere in the lives of fellow citizens, one that conveniently insists that issues like abortion cannot be influenced by Catholic belief, but must be loudly invoked when concerning economic inequality. The Right turns Catholicism into conservative Protestantism – a set of theologically-tinged beliefs that turn out to conform to Enlightenment liberalism, with its insistence upon limited government based upon autonomy and social contract (and hence denying that man is by nature a political animal), insistent opposition to abortion, and the unleashing of an avaricious economic system and a bellicose international stance (and a corresponding silence, in each case, about contradictions with Catholic social teaching). The Left accuses the Right of being uncaring toward the poor; the Right accuses the Left of being uncaring toward the unborn. Both do so in the name of an authentic Catholicism, and both are partially correct, partially Catholic, and fully American.

In his two guises – two distinctive speeches, one delivered in Houston, the other at Notre Dame – Kennedy articulated the two main ways that contemporary Catholics would make themselves at home in America. In so doing, he ushered in the great division of contemporary Catholicism which, arguably, results less from any inherent division within Catholicism itself, but rather arises more from the effort of Catholics to adapt their religion to the dominant political positions of their regime. In order to make Catholicism fully compatible with America, American Catholicism had to be made incompatible with itself.

Kennedy won the White House and inaugurated Camelot, but lost Catholicism for Americans. The question now is whether what was put asunder can be put back together. To take the initial steps down this path will require first the willingness of Catholics to be less at home in America, by eschewing both the claims that their faith is merely private belief and that Catholicism is fundamentally compatible with enlightenment liberalism. In doing so we may lose some political campaigns, but unify the Church and heal our souls, and perhaps even someday win the soul of America not by conforming, but by transforming.

Patrick J. Deneen is a professor in the department of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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