September 12, 2020
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 uphold an absolute separation of church and state for the interests of the nation instead of any particular religious community.
“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.”
Could we imagine such a thing today? A politician of any party seeking office at any level declaring to an audience of clergy the importance of a government unencumbered by their interference?
Kennedy’s speech is remembered as the moment he defined what his Catholicism would mean for the U.S. presidency. But Kennedy also took one more step for universal religious liberty that day:
“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end—where all men and all churches are treated as equal—where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.”
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.
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The separation of church and state is as crucial today as it was sixty years go. It is also threatened by today’s religious right-wing extremists more than ever before.
Board Chair, Center for Inquiry
PS. CFI fights every day for the equal treatment of nonbelievers under the protections provided to us by the United States Constitution. Make sure you are signed up for CFI’s Action Alerts for the latest updates and to know what you can do to help ensure and preserve true religious freedom in the United States. https://centerforinquiry.org/sign-up/
Full transcript of Kennedy’s speech: https://centerforinquiry.org/john-f-kennedys-stance-on-church-state-separation/