Tuesday, February 28, 2012

JFK on Separation of Church and State: Fighting the same battle a half-century later

A few days ago, a current presidential candidate attacked the speech presented by Senator John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his 1960 campaign against Vice-President Richard Nixon. This candidate said that Kennedy's speech made him want to "throw up." Of course, much of what he accused Kennedy of saying was a total fabrication on his part. The candidate put words in Kennedy's mouth and then attacked JFK for saying things he never said.

In other words, he created a straw man to help him pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible. For example, he falsely quoted Kennedy as saying, "faith is not allowed in the public square." Kennedy never said or implied any such thing.

But what bothers me even more than the fabrication is his total dismissal of the principle that actually was at the core of Senator Kennedy's address: the absolute separation of church and state. Kennedy was only the second Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. His present-day critic, who seeks to become the fourth (after Al Smith in 1928, Kennedy, and John Kerry in 2004), is either ignorant of - or chooses to ignore - the climate and context in which Kennedy spoke to the Houston ministers.

Many Protestants of that day were scared to death of the prospect of a Catholic president. They were afraid that he might take his orders from the Vatican. (for the purposes of this discussion, we'll consider Baptists to be Protestants, though this is not technically accurate) The president, in their eyes, would simply be a marionette, moving this way and that at the whim of the puppetmaster sitting on the papal throne. Protestant ministers, Baptists prominent among them, railed from their pulpits against such a prospect.

Kennedy didn't shrink from his accusers - he faced them head-on by speaking to the Houston ministers and addressing the subject directly.

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 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 . . . 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 the current candidate does not, he said, believe - as Kennedy professed to believe over 50 years ago - "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

The candidate longs for the church's "involvement in the operation of the state" out of one side of his mouth while using the other side to complain about a government that will "tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you."

Senator Kennedy rightly cited the actual (not imagined, as in the current candidate's case) persecution of people of faith that had led to the adoption of the two religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He particularly mentioned "Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom."

Most historians also cite strong evidence that it was a deal made with James Madison by one of those "harassed" (a startlingly mild word to use for those who were jailed) Virginia Baptist preachers, John Leland, that resulted in those First Amendment clauses that secured religious freedom for all Americans. (See TBC Baptist Briefs series, "Baptists Fight for Religious Liberty in the New United States.")

John F. Kennedy's Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association stands as one of the truly historic and articulate defenses of religious liberty in American history, presented by one who was being attacked simply for being of the "wrong" faith. For another Catholic candidate for president to come along over 50 years later and attack it is unconscionable. His candidacy would likely have been over last summer if John F. Kennedy hadn't forthrightly and courageously addressed this issue in 1960.  (Click here for the full text of Kennedy's speech.)

Today it's his opponent's Mormon faith that is under attack as Kennedy's Catholic faith was in 1960.

Isn't that always the way it is? When you're among the persecuted, you want the state to leave religion alone. But when you get into a position of power and advantage, then you want church and state locking arms to keep the powerless under your feet.

Unfortunately, some Baptists have joined the "power chorus" in recent years. Some Baptists want the church - the "favored" church, that is - to be part of the power structure, dictating values and policies.

So it was with the people of Jesus' day, looking for a Messiah who would ride in on a white horse and sweep them into power. But Jesus rebuked them.

Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.' (John 18:36, NIV)
Over two thousand years later, we still resist that teaching. Over two hundred years after Baptists led the way to religious freedom in America, we still want to hoard that freedom for ourselves and keep it from others. And over a half century after a candidate for president spoke courageously and eloquently for "an America in which the separation of church and state is absolute," a separation that ensures religious liberty for all people regardless of their faith - or lack of faith - we are still having to fight that battle.

As Baptists, we have a proud heritage of defending freedom - religious freedom, church freedom, soul freedom. From Thomas Helwys and John Smyth to Roger Williams to Isaac Backus and John Leland - and, for the past 75 years, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, today led by Brent Walker - Baptists have stood to defend religious freedom whenever and wherever it is under attack.

May God give us the commitment and courage to continue to do so.

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