JFK embraced the separation of church and state

Sixty years ago today, in the midst of his tightly contested presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy delivered an address that properly identified the constitutional mandate of government neutrality in all matters of religion. Kennedy was Catholic, and his Catholicism was made a central campaign issue that had the potential to determine the outcome of the election.

In his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy did not appease or pander. Instead, the junior senator from Massachusetts affirmed his personal commitment to separating his Catholicism from his prospective presidency, committing to upholding an absolute separation of church and state for the interests of the nation instead of any particular religious community.

In this moment, Kennedy publicly recognized the rights of the nonreligious under those same constitutional protections. A 2020 candidate for president taking this stand eight weeks before Election Day would be remarkable. That Kennedy uttered those brave words on September 12, 1960, makes them utterly astounding. This was an unquestionable profile in courage.

His tragic assassination on November 22, 1963, must not be permitted to silence President Kennedy’s vision of “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Please join CFI in defending this all-inclusive vision of the 35th president of the United States, and thereby securing equal rights for all believers and nonbelievers alike.


I’m grateful for your generous invitation to state my views for the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight.

I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign. The spread of communist influence until it now festers only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power, the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor’s bills, the families forced to give up their farms, an America with too many slums, with too few schools and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues for war and hunger and ignorance and despair. No, no religious barrier.

But because I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured, perhaps deliberately in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again, not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.

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 an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source. Where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public act of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. For a while this year, it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed. In other years it has been and may someday be again a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.

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 him as a condition to holding that office. I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment 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 him to fulfill, and whose fulfillment of his presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation. This is the kind of America I believe in, and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belong to a disloyal group that threatened, I quote, “the freedom for which our forefathers died”. And in fact, this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die when they fled here to escape religious tests that denied office to members of less favored churches, when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. And when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. Side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes, and McCafferty, and Bailey, and Badillo, and Kerry. But no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test there.

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition to judge me on the basis of 14 years in the Congress on my declared stand against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools, which I attended myself. And instead of doing this, do not judge me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications. We have all seen the carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic Church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and rarely relevant to any situation here. But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or prosecute the free exercise of any other religion. And that goes for any persecution at any time by anyone in any country. And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their presidency to Protestants and those which deny it to Catholics.

And rather than cite the misdeeds of those who differ, I would also cite the record of the Catholic Church in such nations as France and Ireland and the independence of such statements as de Gaulle and Adenauer. And let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. 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, 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 dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come, and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office and I hope any other conscientious public servant would do likewise. But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith. Nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election. If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate satisfied that I tried my best and was fairly judged.

But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. In the eyes of history and in the eyes of our own people.

But if, on the other hand, I should win this election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the presidency. Practically identical, I might add, with the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress for without reservation, I can, and I quote, solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution so help me, God.