John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable speech in the presidential campaign of 1960, proclaiming the absolute separation of church and state. His words still reverberate among American Catholics, as we saw during the primary season of 2012 when Senator Rick Santorum said Kennedy’s speech made him “throw up.” Naturally, this got our attention and made us wonder what Catholic politicians should be saying and doing in American politics.
My first reaction to the controversy was that Kennedy and Santorum were typical politicians who over-stated their views for understandable political reasons. In the 1960 election, Kennedy felt intense pressure to speak to the Protestant ministers of Houston in order to defuse the “Catholic problem”; he did so by strictly distancing himself from any possible Catholic influence on his presidency. In 2012, Santorum was trying to win over the Christian right in a Republican primary, where a significant bloc of voters wanted to hear strong religious conservatism. Looking at these men from a perspective that is both cynical and forgiving, I thought they were simply doing what was necessary to win a majority of votes. Since that is how our democratic system works, we private citizens should be “forgiving” of politicians who behave this way.
After reading the full text of Kennedy’s speech, however, I realized that Santorum was largely correct. It is a disturbing speech for Catholics to read, and many of the later commentaries on the speech support this assessment. Scholars and church leaders such as Mark Massa, S.J. (Boston College Theology), Charles J. Chaput (Archbishop of Philadelphia), Michael McConnell (Notre Dame Law School), and Colleen C. Campbell (EPP) have argued that it did long-term damage to Catholic politicians and to all religious people. [i] They claim that Kennedy’s strategy of diminishing hostility to Catholics by proclaiming strict separationism led to the privatizing of religion and to “secularizing” the public square, thereby weakening religious voices in American politics.
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While these criticisms are powerful, they also miss something new and troubling about Catholic politicians today who seem to be following JFK but are strangely inconsistent. Many reject the strict separation of religion and politics for certain issues, called “social justice” issues, while asserting strict separation for the life and family issues—an approach that I call “selective separation” because it mixes religion and politics in one area and privatizes religion in other areas. This approach is different than Kennedy’s, and I wish to explain why it occurs and why it is mistaken. I shall do so by discussing JFK’s speech and its relation to Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Notre Dame Address and to later “social justice” politicians. I also hope to show how Pope Benedict and, surprisingly, the Mormon candidate Mitt Romney, might be helpful in correcting the problem.
JFK’s 1960 Speech
In surveying JFK’s speech, one can make a fairly strong case that it went beyond what was politically necessary to counter the distrust of Catholics in American politics, even in a close election. Many of Kennedy’s views are expressed in unqualified terms: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”; he claims he would never “accept instructions on public policy” from any clergyman or Church teaching; he asserts that religion is a politician’s “own private affair,” and his decisions as president would reflect only “what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest.” One of the most disturbing features of Kennedy’s speech is that he describes himself as someone who merely “happens to be Catholic” and asks to be judged by his fourteen year career in Congress in which he took his “declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican” and “against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools.” In other words, Kennedy boasts about his opposition to creating an official ambassadorship to the Vatican in the 1960s (which was not established until Ronald Reagan did so in 1984) and about his non-support for Catholic schools.
Kennedy even seems to deliberately misrepresent a 1948 statement by the American Bishops on two recent Supreme Court cases, Everson and McCollum, about state aid to public schools. He claims that the Bishops share his views, but their statement emphasizes the historic “cooperation” between government and religious institutions and rejects the “separationist” rhetoric of the Court in these cases. [ii] Kennedy then has the nerve to say at the end of his speech that he does “not intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.”
It is hard to read Kennedy’s words without feeling embarrassment at the disavowal of all political implications of his Catholic faith. Even progressive Catholic journals like Commonweal and America said at the time that the speech went further than was necessary to win a close election. The influential Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, who served as an unofficial advisor to Kennedy, and some Protestants, agreed. They argued that Kennedy was trying to defuse Protestant anti-Catholicism, not secular anti-Catholicism, which implied that not all Baptist ministers would object to a positive role for religion in politics, such as references to the God-given natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.
Some of today’s commentators seem to miss the radicalism of the speech. Cardinal Dolan recently said that Santorum and others misunderstood Kennedy to mean a complete separation of religious faith from political life. Yet, that is clearly Kennedy’s position. Cardinal Dolan might have defended Kennedy by arguing that his stance was justified by the fear of Catholic power in 1960, two years before the Church rejected special Catholic privileges at Vatican II and proclaimed a universal right to religious liberty. This situation may explain Kennedy’s reasoning, but it does not change his position, which is strongly separationist—and a departure from the historic practice of religion and politics in America. [iii]
From JFK to Cuomo, Pelosi, and Biden
In assessing JFK’s influence, scholars have drawn a direct line to Mario Cuomo’s famous speech in 1984 at Notre Dame, explaining why he was “personally opposed” to abortion but would not try to impose his Catholic beliefs on others. Cuomo’s primary argument is that he is the Catholic governor of New York, living in a pluralistic democracy where not everyone shares his faith or his belief in Church teachings. He asks what a Catholic politician should do in a society where Constitutional freedoms for abortion, divorce, and birth control are legally established and widely accepted. His answer is that respect for democratic pluralism makes it wrong to “impose” his religious beliefs on others and his constitutional duties forbid him to turn private beliefs into public policy. Cuomo’s secondary argument is prudential. He says that a public consensus is necessary before a governor or legislator may bring his religious convictions about abortion into the American public square. He also argues for other ways to stop abortion besides outlawing it, such as providing state aid to poor women to keep their children and to raise them once born.
While many critics see Cuomo’s strategy as a continuation of JFK’s privatizing of religion, I think that Cuomo and later Catholic politicians are adding something new. The evidence is that Cuomo vigorously opposed the death penalty, repeatedly vetoing legislation in New York; and he viewed his opposition as a command of Christian conscience as well as public policy, even in an area where public opinion was divided or favored the death penalty. And, like many politicians from the Civil Rights Era who were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., Cuomo favored fighting for social justice on both religious and policy grounds. Obviously, this is different than simply privatizing religion or asserting the absolute separation of church and state. It is selective separation. It is also an attempt by a layperson to redefine Catholic doctrine, since Catholic teaching holds that the death penalty is a prudential judgment—meaning, it is a legitimate power of the state, although it should be used “rarely, if it all” in the modern era. By contrast, abortion is always wrong, and prudence applies only when deciding which means are best to oppose abortion in the circumstances.
Cuomo’s approach creates a new kind of Catholic politician—the “social justice politician.” He or she mixes religion and politics in some areas, bringing Church teachings into the public square in matters like civil rights for racial minorities and women, in opposing the death penalty and military policies (Catholic just war doctrine is happily invoked against certain wars), and on environmental issues. Most well-known and popular Catholic politicians in America fit this mold—Mario and Andrew Cuomo, the late Ted Kennedy, Dick Durbin, Geraldine Ferraro, Fr. Robert Drinan, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Kathleen Sebelius, Rudy Giuliani, and VP Joe Biden. Their inconsistency lies in opposing the mix of religion and politics in the life and family issues: they reject public support for Church teaching on abortion, birth control, divorce, gay marriage and adoptions (perhaps euthanasia as well), and some have actively subverted these teachings. How do we explain this inconsistency?
It is difficult to explain why a preponderance of Catholic politicians in America defines their religious faith as a mission to promote a certain version of social justice—and why they sometimes depart from the Church’s view of “social justice” which is often critical of the welfare state for centralizing power and undermining subsidiarity as well as for creating undue dependency of the poor on the state (as John Paul II argues in Centesimus Annus).
Several explanations might be proposed. Could it be a lack of deep religious faith? Is it a mistaken belief in “public reason”—in John Rawls’ idea that only those policies expressed in terms of universal reason are permitted in the public square? Is it the Americanization of Catholic faith? Perhaps all three factors play a role.
Regarding the first factor, weakness of faith, one must be careful about speculating, since it is difficult and presumptuous to judge the hearts of others. The faith and practice of Catholics like Mario Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden seem deep and sincere (although few people thought that JFK’s faith was deep or sincere and even Jackie spoke of Jack as a “poor Catholic”).
The problem is that even sincere, practicing Catholics can lose the transcendent dimension of their faith—the belief in the inscrutable will of God, in the divine mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation, in the mystical truth of the Real Presence, in the afterlife and the resurrection, in the supremacy of spiritual over temporal affairs. When spiritual transcendence is lost, then improving life in this world takes the place of saving one’s soul in the world to come; and all suffering seems utterly inconsistent with divine love and divine justice. In this light, social justice seems more “real” or relevant than the human life and family issues, since procreation and all the life and death issues are more than one dimensional. They are material and biological realities, but they also have a mystical and transcendent dimension to them. For example, conception is both a biological event and the spiritual infusion of a soul into a human person, a point that is lost if the spiritual dimension of faith is weakened. The weakening of the transcendent dimension of faith may explain why social justice becomes the only focus of many Christian politicians, to the exclusion of life and family issues.
A second factor pertains to Public Reason. Many social justice Christians have mistakenly accepted the idea of John Rawls that faith-based arguments are not admissible in the public square because they are not derived from universal reason. Embracing this view is odd for American citizens because nothing in the Constitution or court decisions says that one cannot use arguments from the books or doctrines of religion in politics. Free exercise of religion and free speech permit any citizen to argue that a policy is wrong simply because it is “against the Bible,” as well as against empirical science, and everyone is free to reject or accept the argument. The widespread belief that such appeals are improper is mainly due to intellectual intimidation, rather than to a valid legal or cultural claim.
It is especially odd for Catholics to be intimated by this claim, since they have well-developed tradition of natural law that is based on universal reason in addition to faith. It supports the idea that human life begins at conception with arguments from scientific reason as well as from faith. Likewise, the idea that marriage between a man and woman is morally right is rooted in biological nature and the natural telos of sexuality, and it has been deepened by new arguments from Catholic personalism about the intrinsic good of marriage. Catholic politicians who think that social justice is rational because it is based on human rights, while a family issue like heterosexual marriage is not rational, have simply missed a proper education in Catholic natural law (leaving them vulnerable to the strained logic of Judge Walker in Perry v. Schwarzenegger claiming that no “rational basis” exists for limiting marriage to one man and one woman). This misperception needs to be remedied by better education in Catholic natural law. It also requires Catholics to recognize that natural law includes more than the natural rights of Jefferson and Locke; it includes the duties to moral perfection and virtue found in Aquinas and Aristotle.
A third factor may be found in the Americanization of Catholic faith. This is probably the most important legacy of the JFK speech: the stimulus it gave to the intense desire to assimilate, undermining the courage to be different and pressuring Catholics to be more like Protestants and to aim at nothing higher than a middle-class lifestyle. Vatican II also made assimilation more acceptable than in the past, since constitutional democracy and human rights were embraced as part of Catholic social teaching. In this situation, selective separation is the easiest path to follow, since it permits belief in God while requiring no resistance to misguided social norms.
Although the “selective separation” of social justice Christians may be harder to explain than the “absolute separation” of JFK, neither position is correct from a Catholic perspective. The Gospel teaching about rendering Caesar his due creates a distinction but not a separation between the spiritual and temporal realms, since the two powers are ordained by God for the common good of society. It implies that church and state should have a relation of cooperation or friendly accommodation, rather than of separation. Civil laws can and should be influenced by Church teachings on social justice as well as on life and family issues. Both teachings may be brought into the public square to serve the temporal common good.
Advice for Catholic Politicians
For further guidance on the relation of church and state in today’s world, I would like to suggest two sources, one Catholic and one Mormon. The Catholic source is Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. The purpose of this encyclical is to clarify the meaning of Christian charity by comparing it to other kinds of love (like eros and friendship) and to other virtues. Benedict is especially concerned with the relation between charity and justice. His goal is to establish the proper hierarchy of virtues by tempering the zeal for justice and subordinating it to charity, without neglecting justice. The encyclical helps to restore the proper balance between religion and politics by showing that the highest virtue, self-giving love or charity, is never exhausted or attained by social justice.
Another source of useful advice is Mitt Romney’s recent address to Liberty Baptist University. It reads like a replay of JFK’s 1960 speech because it shows a Mormon politician looking for acceptance by Protestant America. Yet, the setting is more secular than fifty years ago, and Romney’s approach is softer and shrewder than JFK’s. Romney rejects separationism by arguing for the importance of Christian values in public life, but he makes the case under the broad banner of culture rather than of church teachings. This approach is politically astute because it disarms secular Americans. Romney’s central thesis is that “Culture Matters,” which may be the best way of talking about religiously-based morality in American today. It provides a useful contrast to Santorum’s approach, which alarms or scares many Americans. Romney is non-threatening because he frames the argument in less religiously-charged language. He says that marriage should be between one man and one woman because culture matters and culture is shaped by Christian consciences and the religious values of “faith, family, work, and service.” With little fanfare, religion enters the public square though the back door of culture, tradition, and common moral values.
The conclusion that I would draw from this analysis is that Romney’s approach may be the most prudent strategy for overcoming the legacies of church-state separation because it does so with familiar and reassuring rhetoric about America’s cultural heritage. As a Catholic, I say this with some regret, since it implies that the most effective spokesman for Catholic politicians in America today might well be a mild-mannered Mormon—a surprising turn of events in the vital relation of Christian faith and American democracy.
(Editor’s note: This essay was derived from a speech first delivered to the Catholic Lawyers Society of Denver, Colorado, on June 22, 2012 as part of their “Fortnight for Freedom” lecture series.)