Like Alana, I re-read John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in light of Senator Santorum’s statement that he wanted to “throw up” in reaction to it. I concur with much of what Kennedy said, even as I’m familiar with (and somewhat sympathetic to) those who believe the speech went too far in dividing people’s private beliefs from their public duties and keeping religious convictions from shaping our public debate. Respectful disagreement with a serious speech is one thing; feeling the need to vomit all over it is quite another.
There are some important things missing from Santorum’s critique of Kennedy’s address. One is context. Those who served by Kennedy’s side have said no obstacle to the presidency handicapped Kennedy more than the widespread charge that a Catholic in the White House could not uphold America’s traditional and constitutional distance between the church and the state. The fear was that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican. Polls showed that well over half of Hubert Humphrey’s support was based solely on Kennedy’s religion. “People here aren’t anti-Kennedy,” said the publisher of West Virginia’s Coal Valley News. “They are simply concerned about the domination of the Catholic Church.” One article, written prior to the 1960 Wisconsin primary, mentioned the word “Catholic” 20 times in 15 paragraphs, even as it overlooked Kennedy’s positions on key public policy matters. That is what Kennedy was facing at the time.