One of the difficult "humps" that the late President Kennedy had to climb during that campaign regarded his faith. Kennedy was a Catholic and served as the first Catholic in our nation's highest political office, but not without controversy. There were many accusations virtually all of which were foolish. Some claimed that Kennedy would just be a puppet of the Pope. Others feared that "the Catholics were coming! The Catholics were coming!" Some went so far as to claim that Kennedy was the Antichrist citing his Catholic faith (then again, have there been any Presidential elections in recent memory where at least one candidate was not labeled the Antichirst?).
Of course this was not the first or the last example of Presidents and presidential hopefuls having to defend their faith as they sought to be Commander-in-Chief. Just look at 2008. Former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney had to give a major speech and had to constantly deal with his Mormon faith. Many have argued that if Romney runs again, he will once again have to deal with his faith as it too has proven to be almost too big of a hurdle for him to cross.
And then there was then-Senator Barack Obama's Jeremiah Wright problem. The black liberation theology pastor had become the main story during the Democratic Presidential primaries as the Hillary Clinton campaign encouraged nonstop discussion and airing of Wright's controversial sermons and sound bites. In response, now President Obama had to defend his pastor and define his own faith. Eventually, as more tapes surfaced and Wright refused to remain quite, the President had to disown Wright.
Faith and politics have always been an uneasy and uncomfortable couple in American politics. Whether it be language of a Providential Divine in our founding documents or President George W. Bush's answer that "Christ, because He saved my life," was the most influential philosopher in his life. Faith is a big issue in politics and especially Presidential politics.
In 1960 faith was a front page issue. Then Senator Kennedy was under attack for his unwavering Catholic faith. In response, fifty years ago, Kennedy laid out what has become the standard of balancing faith and politics for many politicians today. In a major speech given on September 12, 1960, Senator Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance regarding his faith. In the famous speech, Kennedy stated:
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 believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; 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; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all . . .
But let me stress again that these are my views.
For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President.
I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.
The final two paragraphs cited above are perhaps his most famous. Kennedy's point is clear. When it comes to politics, Kennedy sought to assure the American public that his faith was a private faith that did not shape his public policy. His religious identity should not confuse his political convictions. The two are and would remain separate.
This belief has continued to this day especially, though not limited to, Mr. Kennedy's political party. During the 2004 Presidential election between then-President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry faith became an issue. Kerry, like Kennedy before him, was representing Massachusetts and was a Democrat. And, like Kennedy, Kerry was a Catholic. When asked about how his faith would affect his work as President, Kerry quoted the above speech from the former President saying, "I'm not running to be a Catholic president. I'm running to be a president who happens to be Catholic."
The legacy of the late President continues today.
But we must admit that such a policy and approach to politics is inaccurate. Both Kerry and Kennedy are being dishonest with their voters when they say they can divorce their Catholicism from their political views. Such a dichotomy is an impossibility.
The standard set by Kennedy is a dangerous one. Many have bought into the lie that divorcing our faith from our politics is possible. But it is not. Theology and faith, in fact, shape and determine our politics. The Kennedy family is a perfect example of this. On his deathbed, the late Senator Ted Kennedy wrote to the Pope seeking assurance of his salvation. The Pope refused to grant it. What is interesting is that in the letter, Senator Kennedy detailed his reasoning for why he should be among the redeemed: his liberal public policy. Interesting how the younger brother of the late President who set the standard of divorce between faith and politics could not keep them separate on his own deathbed. Ted Kennedy proved that his Catholicism wasn't orthodox but progressive. His faith, as he proved, did shape his public policy and his public policy did shape his faith.
Regardless of how much we try to divorce these two in our federal officials, we cannot not. Everyone is a theologian and everyone's theology shapes their views, beliefs, and voting records. There is no such thing as a private faith though many have tried to prove the contrary. Faith, religion, and theology are public matters because we wear them all on our face, in our actions, and behind every word we speak. Faith, even when we try to privatize it, always manages to come to the forefront. Kennedy's true theology, whether Roman Catholic or progressive, determined his ethical, moral, and political views.
Fifty years later we are still dealing with this same issue. Many, even beyond the realm of politics, have convinced themselves that faith belongs in churches, synagogues, and mosques. But such a belief continues to show its foolishness. Theology transcends religion and enters our everyday lives whether it be our marriages, our place of employment, or traffic jams. A private faith is no faith at all. A real faith affects and drives our worldview.
As voters we must expect more from our elected officials. Instead of asking them to leave their faith at the door, let us assume that their theological convictions will drive their voting record and public stances. Therefore, the debate over religion, faith, and personal theology ought to remain in the public sphere regardless of how uncomfortable or confusing it might be. Faith is a shaping part of our lives and to ignore as much is foolishness. When we select our leaders, let us know who they really are beyond sound bites, media ads, and campaign stump speeches. Let us accept that worldviews matter and theology shapes every worldview. Though it is dangerous to apply inaccurate labels to persons of particular faiths, theology still matters and must remain a topic of concern and discussion.
It is time to make faith a subject of importance again.
Albert Mohler - John F. Kennedy in Houston, Fifty Years Later
Blogizoamai - We Are All Theologians: The Root of All We Are and Do
Blogizoamai - What's In a Word? A Subtle Shift From Freedom of Religion to Freedom of Worship and Why It Matters
Blogizoamai - The Ongoing Conversation on Religious Liberty
Blogizoamai - The Lion of the Senate and the Lamb of God: The Pope, the Politician, and the Plea for Grace
Blogizoamai - Why I (Hesitantly) Signed the Manhattan Declaration
Blogizoamai - Where the Gospel and Politics Collide: The Separation of State and Church (Part 1)
Blogizoamai - Where the Gospel and Politics Collide: Under God or Under Government? (Part 2)
Blogizoamai - Where the Gospel and Politics Collide: The Necessity of Government in a Fallen World (Part 3)
Blogizoamai - Where the Gospel and Politics Collide: The Birth of the American Concept of Separation of State and Church
Blogizoamai - Where Does the Madness End?: Where the Homosexual Agenda Ends - Part 2
Blogizoamai - What is to Be Our Response?: Living As a Christian in an Obama Administration