President John F, Kennedy took negative tones and harsh political stances to distance himself from the Catholic Church, said Michael W. McConnell, Professor of Law at Stanford University and former federal judge, Friday, at a lecture titled “Remind Me: Why Did Anyone Care if JFK was a Catholic?”
The lecture was held in the Hesburgh Center auditorium Friday to kick off Notre Dame’s James P. Riley series on religion and public life.
The lecture commemorated the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s historical Houston Speech, which McConnell called one of the most effective speeches ever made by a candidate. McConnell said it both neutralized anti-Catholics and rallied American Catholics to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.
“[Though] JFK won a great victory for inclusion and against bigotry … Kennedy fell headlong into the most bitter misconceptions of his political opponents,” McConnell said.
The speech, given on Sept. 12, 1960, addressed the issue of separation of church and state, which McConnell called the most delicate problem for Kennedy to address.
At the time. American citizens feared a Catholic president would be incapable of making public policy decisions without being influenced by the Church. Kennedy hoped to quell the anti-Catholic sentiment.
“I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me,” Kennedy said in his famous speech.
Whatever issue may come before me as President…I will make my decision… without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”
After a brief history of discrimination against American Catholics, and what McConnell called “the oldest prejudice in America,” he led the audience through the footage of Kennedy’s speech, pausing occasionally to analyze his language. McConnell explained several reservations he held about Kennedy’s speech.
“[The speech is] entirely and surprisingly negative and defensive,” McConnell said.
With help from his Houston speech, Kennedy won 83 percent of the Catholic vote and 34 percent of the white Protestant vote in the 1960 election.
“In his speech, Kennedy states that he is merely the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic,” McConnell said.
According to McConnell, religion is too deep and important to be happenstance, and people should have been more concerned about what JFK was disavowing.
“By stating, ‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,’ Kennedy adopted the vocabulary of his opponents,” he said. “Everyone is for separation of church and state, but when you add the term ‘absolute separation,’ it adds a degree of hostility.”
The hour-long lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, where McConnell addressed modern politics and the current role of religion in public policy.