Was JFK Right to Uphold an ‘Absolute’ Separation of Church and State?

Rick Santorum bows out of the race. But his critique of President Kennedy has already prompted Cardinal Dolan to offer his own assessment of JFK's legacy, signaling a broader push to challenge Catholic attitudes on political engagement.

Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, accompanied by his wife, Karen, and members of his family, speaks at a campaign rally at Four Seasons Sheraton on April 3 in Mars, Pa.
Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, accompanied by his wife, Karen, and members of his family, speaks at a campaign rally at Four Seasons Sheraton on April 3 in Mars, Pa. (photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum, the Catholic pro-life GOP presidential candidate, recently provoked a furor when he attacked President John Kennedy, Jr.’s 1960 speech designed to defuse anti-Catholic bigotry by embracing an “absolute” separation between church and state.

It was vintage Santorum, underscoring his unique, sometimes frustrating contribution to the national debate on a host of issues, from abortion to same-sex “marriage” to the appropriate role of religious believers in the public square.

On the afternoon of April 10, Santorum suspended his bid to secure the GOP presidential nomination. But his hard-charging approach to social issues is likely to live on as religiously-minded voters take stock of his GOP rival, MItt Romney, long accused of "flip flopping" on key social issues, and President Barak Obama, still engaged in a public conflict with the U.S. bishops over the free exercise of Catholic institutions.

Further, Santorum's comments about Kennedy have drawn Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York into the long-simmering dispute over JFK's legacy. Decades ago, when self-identified Catholic politicians began supporting abortion rights while describing themselves as “personally opposed,” prolife activists blamed JFK for driving a wedge between Catholic teaching and practical politics. 

However, during a televised interview broadcast this Easter Sunday, Cardinal Dolan asserted that both JFK and Santorum were right.

“I would cheer what John Kennedy said; he was right,” said Cardinal Dolan, who did not directly reference the prolife community's problems about JFK's speech. “I would also say that Sen. Santorum had a good point because, unfortunately, what John Kennedy said … has been misinterpreted to mean that a separation of church and state also means a cleavage, a wall, between one’s faith and one’s political decisions.”

The New York cardinal’s latest comments appear to be part of a larger campaign to engage public opinion and thus counter partisan and secular attacks on the free exercise of Catholic institutions.

In his role as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Conference, the cardinal must address a host of religious-freedom concerns, from the federal contraception mandate to legislation and legal challenges dealing with same-sex “marriage,” abortion and conscience rights.

Yet, as Church leaders and their religious and political allies press for legislative and legal remedies, their most visible opponents are often self-identified Catholics — from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Santorum, who secured key pro-life bills during his two terms in the Senate and had firsthand experience with the tortured logic of Catholic politicians who touted their independence from Church teaching, first criticized Kennedy’s views in a 2010 Register interview.

This February, at the height of the contraception-mandate controversy, Santorum offered an impassioned but less precise critique of the late president’s views on the proper relationship between church and state.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum asked.

He argued that religious witness in the public square was being penalized, while special interests and secular forces imposed their own agenda on Christian believers, “which, of course, is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.”

Political commentators on both sides of the partisan divide have challenged the substance and the tone of Santorum’s critique, arguing that the presidential hopeful is too much of a culture warrior to be commander in chief.

“When you’re attacking a bit of cherished national lore, like the Houston speech, it’s best to have your facts right. Kennedy did not, in fact, argue that ‘people of faith’ should have no role in the public square,” noted National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru last week.

Kennedy’s “actual argument was that religious people should not allow their religious commitments to influence their public positions. It is not an especially persuasive argument — Martin Luther King Jr. was in the midst of refuting it by personal example — but to make that retort Santorum would have had to describe what he opposes accurately,” stated Pomeru. 


Long-Standing Dispute

In truth, ever since former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo cited Kennedy’s position to justify his own “personally opposed” stance on abortion, Catholic leaders and pro-life activists have expressed frustration with JFK’s legacy and have struggled to offer a more integrated view of the Christian vocation in public life, from politics and business to medicine and the law.

Kennedy’s speech “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,’” charged then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in a 2010 speech at Houston Baptist University marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s iconic statement.

Whatever his intentions, Kennedy’s “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,” stated Archbishop Chaput, who now heads the Philadelphia archdiocese.

Kennedy “warned that he would not ‘disavow my views or my Church in order to win this election,’” noted Archbishop Chaput, but “in its effect, the Houston speech … began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.”

“It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set ‘the national interest’ over and against ‘outside religious pressures or dictates,’” Archbishop Chaput charged.


Reinterpretation of Speech?

Cardinal Dolan, for his part, took a generous view of both Kennedy’s and Santorum’s intentions.

“I don’t think John Kennedy meant a cleavage between faith and politics. He did mean a wall between state and church, and I would applaud that one, but I would agree with Senator Santorum that, unfortunately, that has been misrepresented to mean that faith has no place in the public square. That, I would, with Senator Santorum say is a misinterpretation not only of what Senator Kennedy meant, but with what the American genius is all about,” said Cardinal Dolan, during a taped interview for Face the Nation broadcast on Easter Sunday.

During his 1960 speech before an audience of Baptist ministers, Kennedy affirmed his belief in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute … 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 … where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source,” he continued.

“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.”

In the wake of Santorum’s remarks about JFK, some scholars and political commentators have taken another look at Kennedy's speech. 

Colgate University’s Robert Kraynak, the author of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, reviewed  the late president's statement and determined that Santorum raised legitimate issues.

“Santorum was largely correct about Kennedy’s speech being disturbing and even embarrassing for Catholics — although Santorum hurt his credibility with the juvenile reference to ‘throwing up,’” said Kraynak, a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Freedom & Western Civilization at Colgate.

“Santorum could have said that Kennedy’s speech goes much further than necessary in asserting the ‘absolute’ separation of church and state, in claiming that Kennedy would never ‘accept instructions on public policy’ from Church teaching and that religion is a politician’s ‘own private affair.’”

Kraynak suggested in an email message that “the most disturbing (almost nauseating) feature of Kennedy’s speech is that he asks to be judged by his 14-year career in Congress, in which he made his “declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican” and “against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools.”

“In other words, Kennedy brags about his opposition to creating an official ambassadorship to the Vatican in the 1960s (not established until Ronald Reagan did so in 1984) and his non-support for Catholic schools,” said Kraynak.

A half century after Kennedy’s election, and during a 2012 presidential election year marked by a deadly serious, and, as yet, unresolved church-state conflict over the HHS mandate, Kennedy’s legacy will likely continue to be in dispute.

For some Americans, the 1960 speech has taken on iconic proportions that resist critical analysis. But for others, Santorum’s comments provide an opportunity to reflect on the vast, untapped potential of Catholic public witness.