TEXAS FAITH: Did JFK have a greater impact on religion than any modern president?

The Texas Faith blog takes up the question of John F. Kennedy’s impact on religion in America with responses from three SMU faculty members.

By Bill McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

The nation and certainly the city of Dallas are coming upon the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. There are many parts of his presidency and death that our paper and others are starting to examine, from the legacy of his foreign policy to his imprint on civil rights to his use of television to communicate.

One area that hasn’t gotten much coverage is John F. Kennedy’s impact on religion in America. Often, we read about how Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan awakened evangelicals and changed the face of religion in America, particularly in politics.

But did JFK have a greater effect than perhaps any modern president on religion in America?

Read on for some insightful answers:

WILLIAM NOAKES, Attorney, Adjunct Professor, Cox School of Business and M.Div. Student, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…

Mark 1:21 – 22

On September 12, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, Democratic candidate for president of the United States and a Roman Catholic, appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to deliver a major speech on his religion. At that time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make decisions of vital importance to the country independent of the Vatican. Citing what he had observed on the campaign trail – hungry children in West Virginia, old people without health care, an America with too many slums and not enough schools – Kennedy declared these to be the real issues.

Nonetheless, because so much attention was on his religion, he deemed it necessary to address the issue. At the heart of his speech were these words:

“I believe In an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act…and where no man is denied public office because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

He continued, calling for an America where no religion, be it Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, is the official religion of the United States. Above all else, he looked forward to the day when religious intolerance would end, saying: “Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal…”

With the words of this speech, he dispelled much of the concerns about his religion. In November 1960, he would go on to be elected by the slimmest margin in U.S. history and take the oath as the first president of the United States who happened to be Roman Catholic.

What he achieved was historic, exerting a greater impact than may have been known at the time – on religion and politics in America. His victory not only created an opening for Catholics to run for high office but it opened the door for religion to be an open part of political discourse. Before Kennedy, religion had largely been in the political background. It had, it seemed, always been assumed that those who would hold office would be male and Protestant.

Now, with the election of President Kennedy, religion had come front and center. That has led to other Roman Catholics running for the highest office – Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984 and John Kerry for president in 2004. It has led to a Muslim being elected to Congress. It has led to discussion of religious issues in our politics — both matters of a tolerant and an intolerant nature.

Yet, without Senator Kennedy teaching the Protestant ministers that day in Houston, religion would have remained in the closet with so many other issues that now are appropriately addressed in the public arena.

To President Kennedy, we owe a debt of thanks.

MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

While John F. Kennedy probably did have more effect on religion in America than any other modern president, this is in a sense deeply ironic. Kennedy was not, by all accounts, a deeply religious man. He has been variously described by contemporaries and historians as “a rather irregular Christian,” “spiritually rootless and almost disturbingly secular,” and one who “wore his religion lightly.”

Many subsequent presidents — most notably Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush—appeared to give religion a much more central place in their lives. Despite hysterical warnings that Kennedy would be beholden to Vatican dictates, posthumous revelations about his various dalliances make it abundantly clear that he hardly began each day by asking “What would the Pope do?”

He seldom talked about religion while president; indeed, the bulk of his public utterances on spiritual matters were attempts to distance himself from his own church (admittedly a political necessity for a Catholic seeking the presidency in his day). So Kennedy certainly did not influence the nation’s religious landscape through his own personal piety or public theology.

At the same time, however, Kennedy’s successful pursuit of the presidency —and subsequent embrace by the nation as a great (or at least good) president — was a watershed moment for members of America’s largest religious denomination: Roman Catholicism. A Catholic had sought the presidency once before (Al Smith in 1928), but had lost decisively amidst religious fear mongering from both secular liberals and evangelical Protestant conservatives.

Well into the twentieth century, Catholics had to fight off governmental efforts to shut down their parochial schools, and they were repeatedly told that their respect for papal authority made it impossible for them to be “real” patriotic Americans. Kennedy’s election, however, sent a powerful signal that that era of religious bigotry was waning, and that a member of the nation’s largest church could hold its highest office.

It was a vindication of Catholicism as a legitimate and accepted religion in America, no matter how imperfect the Catholicism of its vehicle. Later, once this social and political acceptance was assured, Catholics could afford themselves the luxury of looking deeper into a candidate’s personal religiosity and fidelity to Church teaching (as they would in 2004, when a majority of American Catholics — especially devout ones — rejected their co-religionist John Kerry in favor of George W. Bush).

In 1960, however, the message of religious inclusion sent by John Kennedy’s election was enormously important. In that sense, he did indeed have a greater effect on religion in America than any other modern president.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

At the time John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency of the United States, the nation was in the grip of a system with rather rigid social and cultural boundaries. Many of them were drawn by religious institutions and leaders. The emergence and eventual success of the Kennedy campaign modified those boundaries in ways that are difficult to recognize unless one takes the history of that era seriously.

In the fifteen years that immediately followed the end of World War II, the United States was in the midst of a religious resurgence. Worship attendance in that period rose to its highest levels in the nation’s history (as a percentage of the population) and peaked by 1960.

Social norms were dominated by the perspectives of America’s religious majorities, whose views tended to favor separation of the races, the durability of a nuclear family, the reliability of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to communism, and basic acceptance of the largest white Protestant denominations as the voices of religious wisdom. Divorce was either rare or rarely affirmed by religious groups. Homosexuality was silenced and closeted. Catholic Christians almost never married Protestants, and when they did it was only because the Protestants were willing to promise that their children would be raised Catholic. Besides the Sunday segregation that had characterized worship, some churches across the land were looking at establishing or hosting segregated schools to prevent the mixing of races in classrooms on weekdays.

But a revolution was afoot. In Rome, Pope John XXIII was presiding over Vatican II, and it was pondering radical changes for Roman Catholic patterns of worship and of relationships with religious organizations other than itself. In America, the voices demanding desegregation were predominately prophetic religious voices calling for justice.

The Kennedy campaign emerged in the midst of all this. And, with a speech that he delivered in Houston, the Democratic candidate directly addressed the issue of his religious affiliation. Can a person other than a Protestant be the president of the United States? Articulately and courageously, Kennedy challenged the presumptions of the social order about religion.

Many social boundaries moved in the decades after his election. In the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican II opened some windows and allowed fresh air to enter. In America, sacred voices arose with political vigor as well as song to overcome the evils of segregation. By 1980, it became possible for a divorced man (Ronald Reagan) not only to be elected to the presidency but to do so with an immense amount of conservative religious support.

Kennedy was either a catalyst in the changing religious landscape of America or, at the least, his emergence as the nation’s leader coincided with it. His speech in Houston convinces me that Kennedy pioneered a great change in America’s religious perspectives.

Read the full blog.

Read more about SMU experts discussing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

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