Ken Connor

For quite some time in America, frank public discussions about candidates' religious views have been deemed verboten. The trend began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy found that his Catholic faith was proving to be a liability with Protestant voters. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to run for president since Al Smith's landslide defeat in the 1920s, and throughout the campaign he met significant resistance from detractors who were deeply suspicious of the Catholic faith. Hundreds of anti-Catholic tracts were sent to millions of homes across America discouraging voters from supporting Kennedy. Many refused to vote for the young Senator from Massachusetts because they did not agree with his religious beliefs, and this created a crisis for the campaign.

In response to this crisis, Kennedy delivered a famous speech to hundreds of Protestant pastors at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. In this speech, Kennedy essentially said that his faith would have no affect on his decision-making. For Kennedy, religion was a "private affair" that should not influence a president. At one point Kennedy said, "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..." Kennedy then went on to say:

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 – 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 pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

In trying to alleviate the fears of many voters that to elect a Catholic as president would put America under the Pope's control, Kennedy forcefully distanced himself from his church. He essentially said he was Catholic, but that voters should not worry. Kennedy claimed that he would not be influenced by church teachings on a variety of issues, and that he would follow his own conscience instead. What JFK did not explain is why anyone should trust his conscience any more than the church's.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.