Archbishop Chaput Says JFK “Wrong” About Role of Christians in Public Life

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

During a speech at the Houston Baptist University on Monday, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said JFK was “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong” in 1960 when he made his  famous speech about the role of religious faith in the life of our nation.

“Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” the Archbishop said during a March 1 address on the vocation of Christians in American public life. “He had one purpose.  He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive.”

Kennedy managed to convince the country and went on to be elected president, but his speech left a lasting mark on American politics, the Archbishop said.

“His 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.”

He went on to explain that JFK’s speech had two big flaws. First, it made the erroneous claim that the Constitution guarantees the right to the separation of church and state, which it doesn’t.

This erroneous idea began to take root in America after a 1947 Supreme Court decision in which Justice Hugo Black excerpted the phrase “separation of church and state” from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association. Black applied this phrase to the infamous Everson v. Board of Education which became the seminal case in Establishment law in the U.S.

Until that time, “America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government,” the archbishop explained. “Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive.  Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.”

This is why, a year after the Everson decision, the U.S. bishops wrote a letter called “The Christian in Action” in which they endorsed American democracy and religious freedom, but strongly challenged Black’s logic in Everson.

“Kennedy referenced the 1948 bishops’ letter in his Houston comments,” the archbishop said. “He wanted to prove the deep Catholic support for American democracy.  And rightly so.  But he neglected to mention that the same bishops, in the same letter, repudiated the new and radical kind of separation doctrine he was preaching.”

The Houston remarks also created a religious problem, the archbishop said. Even though JFK vowed to never disavow his views or his faith to win an election, he did exactly that in the Houston speech.

“It 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,” the archbishop said.

While Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring, what he actually did was “secularize the American presidency in order to win it,” the archbishop said.

Fifty years after this speech, there are more Catholics in public office than ever before, “But I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try,” he said.

As a result, our country is probably less Catholic or Christian than it was 100 years ago, and one of the reasons is because “Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance.  And too many just don’t really believe.”

While saying that John Kennedy didn’t create these trends in American life “at least for Catholics, his Houston speech clearly fed them,” the archbishop said.

So what is the proper Christian approach to politics?

Christianity is about living and sharing the love of God, he said. “A Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.”

“Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’ (Mt 22:37-40).  That’s the test of our faith, and without a passion for Jesus Christ in our hearts that reshapes our lives, Christianity is just a word game and a legend,” the archbishop said. 

“Relationships have consequences.  A married man will commit himself to certain actions and behaviors, no matter what the cost, out of the love he bears for his wife.  Our relationship with God is the same.  We need to live and prove our love by our actions, not just in our personal and family lives, but also in the public square.  Therefore Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God.”

Christian politics starts with humility, modesty and a “very sober realism,” the archbishop said. No political order can ever constitute a just society, which is why Christians need to be loyal to their country, obedient to its laws, and must cultivate a critical vigilance about both.

“Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority.  We can’t simply ignore or withdraw from civic affairs,” he said.

Calling political engagement a “worthy Christian task” and public office an “honorable Christian vocation,” he went on to say that while conforming their lives and judgment to the Gospel, “Christian leaders in public life can accomplish real good, and they can make a difference.”

In conclusion, he said: “Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify the world as his agents.” And we must do it all together as one.

“We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws — deeply shaped by Christian faith.  It can be so again.  But we will do that together, or we won’t do it at all.”

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