One of the more unhinged criticisms of Sarah Palin flirts with accusing her of anti-Catholicism. “Is Sarah Palin anti-Catholic after attacks on JFK, Nancy Pelosi’s religious beliefs?” a writer for the Irish Voice asked by way of critiquing Palin’s new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag.
Instead of grief, the former vice-presidential nominee and governor of Alaska deserves some credit for legitimately taking on a sacred cow of American civil religious history: John F. Kennedy speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960.
“In the best American tradition, he nobly defended religious tolerance and condemned official governmental preference of any faith over any other,” Palin writes. “But his language was more defensive than is portrayed today, in tone and content. Instead of telling the country how his faith has enriched him, he dismissed it as a private matter meaningful only to him.” She adds, “Rather than spelling out how faith groups had provided life-changing services and education to millions of Americans, he repeatedly objected to any government assistance to religious schools.”
Palin acknowledges that JFK was under intense attack. Still, she writes, “his vaunted speech didn’t represent a successful reconciliation of faith and public office, but an articulate and unequivocal divorce of the two. It is perhaps not surprising, in light of this fact, that his brother Ted Kennedy would go on to have a long career advocating positions directly at odds with his Catholic faith (which was by all accounts sincere).” Kennedy, in other words, added to the problem of how a faithful Catholic or other religious American might approach public life, opting to privatize faith in the service of public life.
Palin’s commentary did not sit well with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and eldest child of JFK’s brother Robert. Townsend took to The Washington Post to issue a scold. “Palin’s argument,” wrote Townsend, “seems to challenge a great American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, stipulating that there be no religious test for public office.”
Townsend’s insistence that Palin endorses a religious test suggests she didn’t read the book quite as carefully as she says she did. And in her zeal to tear down Palin and protect the mythology of a “wall of separation” between church and state, Townsend misses Palin’s point — a point that questions the religious and cultural mythology surrounding the Kennedy family.
Given that it’s a mythology that has sowed confusion about both our constitutional tradition and what exactly it means to be Catholic in America, it’s essential that the mythology face a challenge.
It’s not just the Kennedy family, of course, who might be sensitive to the criticism of the JFK approach to religion. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani, Jerry Brown: The list goes on and on and crosses party lines. But if some of them didn’t keep mentioning that they’re Catholic while on the campaign trail, you might have missed their religious affiliation.
Townsend gets her Irish up about Palin calling out Pelosi by name here, leaving it at Palin simply questioning Pelosi’s faith: “Who anointed her our grand inquisitor?” Palin is much more specific than that, though. She points to the tension between a Nancy Pelosi who says her “ardent” Catholic faith is an essential part of her identity and yet opposes prohibiting partial-birth abortion, for instance.
The disconnect is a challenge lay Catholics in public life have to grapple with. As Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput put it earlier this year: As the number of Catholics in public office grows, “I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work or who even feel obligated to try. The life of our country is no more ‘Catholic’ or ‘Christian’ than it was 100 years ago. In fact, it’s arguably less so.”
The Denver archbishop is some of the good company Palin finds herself in when she criticizes the Kennedy approach to religion and public life. Speaking at Houston Baptist University in March, Archbishop Chaput said Kennedy’s speech “left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely ‘wrong.’ His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”
As she defends her uncle’s legacy, Townsend does his critics and religious freedom itself a disservice. She writes that “no American political leader should cavalierly — or out of political calculation — dismiss the hard-won ideal of religious freedom that is among our country’s greatest gifts to the world.” But it’s precisely out of concern for just that that Palin worries about the Kennedy legacy. And, again, she is not alone. On the September anniversary of the speech, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a long-shot possibility for Republican presidential nominee in 2012, took on the Kennedy speech in remarks at Houston’s St. Thomas University. Meanwhile, in America by Heart, Palin cites Mitt Romney, the Mormon former Republican governor of Massachusetts, who the chattering class advised had to “do a Kennedy” if he wanted to be president. So, in November 2007, he gave a speech at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library where he cited another president instead: George Washington, who, in his farewell address, talked about the “indispensable supports” of religion and morality.
While praising the wisdom of America’s founders in separating church and state as they did, Romney warned against taking it “well beyond its original meaning.” In his un-Kennedy-like speech, he warned against viewing religion as “merely a private affair with no place in public life.” Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts fought for the freedom of Catholic Charities to choose not to participate in adoptions by homosexual couples, knows a little something about threats against religious freedom in contemporary America.
John F. Kennedy remains one of our more popular presidents. He was a brave man who suffered and served. As Palin points out in her book, only God knows a man’s heart. But President Kennedy was wrong in his approach to faith and public life. He was certainly free to chart the course he did. But there’s no reason not to question its wisdom 50 years later.
In fact, there’s good reason to closely examine the Kennedy approach. Consider, for instance, that the fruits of JFK’s legacy include Nancy Pelosi thanking God for the dissenting women religious who departed from the U.S. Catholic bishops in defense of human life and conscience in the health-care legislation that passed earlier this year. That’s a problem.
So, thanks, Gov. Palin, for the nudge — and for taking some rhetorical fire in deference to a destination more powerful than even Washington, D.C.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.