Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Makes Rick Santorum Vomit

On September 7, 1960, a full page ad appeared in the New York Times stating that the fact that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic was a "legitimate issue" in the presidential campaign. This add was sponsored by a group of Protestant ministers headed up by Norman Vincent Peale.

Having been attacked very publicly by a prominent group of respected conservative Protestants, how did Kennedy respond? He went straight into the lion's den, so to speak.

On September 12, just five days after the NYT ad appeared, Kennedy addressed a group of 300 conservative Protestant evangelicals in Houston, Texas. He told them plainly and simply: "I believe in an America where there is an absolute separation between church and state." And then he asked them if they had any questions. And he had the whole damned thing televised. Live.

In the biography, JFK: An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek describes the atmosphere surrounding the famous speech that Kennedy gave to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 as follows:
Religion remained an obstacle. On September 7 [1960], the New York Times carried a front-page article about the ironically named National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, an organization of 150 Protestant ministers led by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale; they said that the Roman Catholic Church, with its dual role as both a church and a temporal state, make Kennedy's faith a legitimate issue in the campaign. Like Kruschev, one member declared, Kennedy was 'a captive of a system.' Although the clergymen were all conservative Republicans eager for Nixon's election (and were guilty of transparent hypocrisy in doing what they said Kennedy's church would do -- interfere in secular politics), their political machinations did not cancel out the effects of their warnings.

Estimates suggested that unless this propaganda was countered and the anti-Catholic bias overcome, Kennedy's religion might cost him as many as 1.5 million votes. The Kennedy campaign quickly organized a Community Relations division to meet the religious problem head-on. James Wine, a staff member at the National Council of Churches, headed the operation. Wine was as busy as any member of Jack's campaign team, answering between six hundred and a thousand letters a week and using lay and clerical Protestants to combat the explicit and implicit anti-Catholicism in so much of the anti-Kennedy rhetoric.

A highly effective and much publicized appearance made before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, on September 12 helped. Bobby, Jack's campaign staff, Johnson, and Rayburn all advised against the appearance. 'They're mostly Republicans and they're out to get you,' Rayburn told Kennedy. But Kennedy believed he had to confront the issue sometime, and he wanted to do it early in the campaign so that he could move on to more constructive matters. 'I'm getting tired of people who think I want to replace the gold at Fort Knox with a supply of holy water.' he told O'Donnell and Powers. In fact, his knowledge of Church doctrine and ties to the Church were so limited that he brought in John Cogley, a Catholic scholar, to coach him in preparation for the appearance.

Although he saw his speech and response to audience questions, which were to follow his remarks, as a crucial moment in the campaign, Kennedy went before the audience of three hundred in Houston's Rice Hotel Crystal ballroom (and the millions of television viewers across the country) with no hesitation or obvious sign of nervousness. The sincerity of what he had to say armed him against his adversaries and conveyed a degree of inner surety that converted a few opponents and persuaded some undecided voters that he had the maturity and balance to become a fine president.
[pp. 282-283]
This was not the first time that Kennedy had tackled the issue. Here is how Dallek describes the way Kennedy responded to reporters who asked about his religion when he first announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on January 2, 1960:
As for the likely debate to erupt over his religion, he also gave an unqualified response. He acknowledged that it would be a matter of substantial discussion. But he saw only one concern for voters: 'Does a candidate believe in the Constitution, does he believe in the First Amendment, does he believe in the separation of church and state.' Having said that, he dismissed the issue as one that had been settled 160 years ago and concluded that he saw 'no value in discussing a matter which is that ancient, when there are so many issues in 1960 which are going to be important.'
[p. 244]
The bigots who were attacking Kennedy for being Catholic were nothing other than the 1960 forerunners of today's Tea Party movement and their ilk. Kennedy succeeded in publicly shaming these bigots in a way that I doubt any 21st century American politician would be capable of pulling off today.

JFK is long gone, but the same religious bigots are still with us, even if they have changed their stripes very slightly. Today the evangelical theocrats have a bigger tent, and they now include Catholics and, perhaps, even Mormons. But these are the same people (sometimes quite literally) who opposed having a Catholic president while claiming to support "religious freedom" and who opposed Civil Rights in the name of "individual liberty".

Kennedy's speech is brilliant, and its brilliance will echo through history. I guess Santorum can take some comfort in the fact that there is no one like Jack Kennedy in modern American politics.

2 comments:

Katy Anders said...

Santorum is awful. But he's also trying to be more Catholic than the Pope.

Father John Courtney Murray - who would later WRITE the Catholic Church's document on Church and State ("Dignitatis Humanae") at the Vatican II Council reviewed and edited Kennedy's speech in 1960.

The Catholic Church's position on Church and State is that the Church is unqualified to determine civil law and should stay the hell out of it.

Santorum appears to be advocating something else. What an awful guy...

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thanks for the lead!

I had heard about Murray helping Kennedy with the speech, but I've never heard about Murray's subsequent career in the Church, and to be honest it hadn't occurred to me to check that out. One of the reasons that this is making me literally salivate is that Murray was a Jesuit, and they are the Grand Masters Of Deception.