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JFK's Religious Revenge

Separating religious beliefs from politics doesn't work.

By Petrarch  |  June 7, 2018

It seems like an eternity - decades of myth-making have surrounded the presidency of John F. Kennedy with a golden glow of suave style and political perfection.  The reality of JFK's sordid personal life and blunders on the international stage was thoroughly hidden by a complicit press, then as now every bit as liberal but in those days far more artful and urbane about it.

Before his election, there was considerable concern across America about something that would barely register today: was it wise to have a Catholic in the White House?  A member of the Roman Catholic Church, by definition, honors the Pope of Rome as the Supreme Pontiff and head of his faith; said Holy Father also happens to be the sovereign ruler of an independent foreign state, the Holy See, better known as Vatican City.

In other words: wasn't being Catholic the very definition of treason for an American politician - that is, holding allegiance to a foreign power?

This may seem silly today, but in 1960 the fear was very real.  Indeed, it wasn't that long ago that there were legitimate grounds for fear, and much more recently than the Spanish Inquisition and Bloody Mary.  In 1864, when America was in the middle of its own Civil War, Pope Pius IX specifically condemned the concept of freedom of religion, which is one of the foundational American liberties:

It was an “error,” argued the pope, to believe that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”

This fundamentally anti-American dogma was only revoked in 1965, five years after JFK's election, and perhaps even partially because of it.  For almost as long, Popes imposed a moral obligation on Catholics to revolt against Protestant rulers.  Its effect is best remembered in England's infamous Gunpowder Plot where English Catholics tried to blow up their entire Protestant government at one go, and there is no shortage of similar though less dramatic attempts over the succeeding centuries.

How to answer the qualms of Americans?  Candidate Kennedy decided to attack the problem straight on, with a speech delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association - a group of Protestant ministers in the heart of the Bible Belt.  He couldn't have been more blunt:

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.

The ministers were convinced of his American bona fides, and America went on to put JFK in the Oval Office when Mr. Nixon decided that complaining about his cheating would damage American votrs' confidence in their government and didn't contest it.  Reading his speech carefully shows an implicit bargain: I won't let my religion control my politics, and pastors, don't try to influence your church members' votes from the pulpit.

This was a profound change in American political culture.  Preachers had argued for or against candidates since the very first elections in Puritan Massachusetts.  By the 1960s, America was ready to put religion on the shelf, perhaps because at the time most Americans generally agreed on the basic morals underpinning our society.  The name over the door of your church didn't really make that much difference to how you led your life from day to day.

JFK summed up what has become the expectation of most Americans of their politicians:

I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

Leaving Your Religion on the Shelf?

This sounds very American - we elect a president, not a pastor, and he's supposed to represent the views of American voters and not of God.  What's more, we can't think of any other promise made by a politician of either party which has been just about universally kept, not only by himself but by his fellow party members, like this one has.

Consider: since the question of abortion first arose, the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church has adamantly opposed the practice as a mortal sin.  Yet you'd be hard pressed to find any Catholic Democratic politician who doesn't wholeheartedly support the right to murder the unborn, in direct opposition to the clear teachings of the Vicar of Christ on Earth - who, according to their professed religion, has the power to literally bar them from heaven. From Nancy Pelosi to Joe Biden to Martin O'Malley and many more, just as JFK promised, what their Catholic prelate tells them has no effect on their actions while legislating.

We see a slightly different but informative effect on the subject of homosexual marriage.  When the American people strongly opposed homosexuality, Catholic Democrats were content to oppose it too, along with non-Catholic Democrats like Barack Obama.  At a certain point a few years ago, however, polls started to show that voters didn't care as much - so abruptly, the views of these politicians changed.  Their church hadn't changed anything, nor its religious teachings, but all of a sudden, somehow they found it in their hearts to start ignoring those teachings and follow what they felt to be their political best interest, just as they'd been doing with abortion for decades.

In both cases, as in so many others, JFK's teaching has been the guiding light for his Democrats: We don't care what our supposed religion says, we'll follow the political winds whereever we think they are blowing us.

As a rule, this has worked pretty well for the Democrats.  Today, most arguments made on explicitly religious grounds are instantly dismissed as out of bounds in politics.  You can say that abortion stops a beating heart because it does, but you can't say that God says it's murder, even though in most religions He does.

The Left is actually more willing to cite religious arguments in favor of their policies, primarily enforced generosity to the poor.  These arguments are just as roundly ignored because a party that booed God at their convention can't possibly be serious about any appeals to Him.

So, since culture-wars issues almost invariably have a religious component at base, the Left has an almost unbeatable advantage on such issues.  As we've seen, they've pretty much won all those issues except possibly for abortion and concealed carry.

He Who Believes In Nothing...

There's just one problem with this: it knocks the underpinnings out of society.

What is religion, after all, but one's foundational beliefs?  By definition they can't be directly proven, but countless millions of people have been willing to die for them.

In modern America, most "religious" people won't even live for their beliefs, much less pay any price on either side of the aisle.  Leftist religious sorts claim that Jesus was poor and homeless and expects His followers to, at least have sympathy for those in similar circumstances, yet when a pastor in far-left but filthy rich Palo Alto started making noise in that direction, he was sacked straightaway.  On the right, the dedication of the owners of Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A to their religious beliefs is famous because it is so rare; far more common is the "Christian" ownership of In-n-Out Burger, where the only remaining sign of religious fervency are minuscule Bible references on the bottom of cups, not the verses themselves, just the references which are meaningless to those not already in the know.

But if you won't live for your beliefs in any visible way, no matter how minor and unobtrusive, can you really be said to be religious at all?

And if, as a society, we don't believe in anything, how can we function?  There has to be some common ground in order to get through the day.  At the very least, we have to agree that it's bad and wrong to kill each other even when there isn't an armed cop present to stop us if we try.

You don't have to watch the news for long to realize that we don't even believe that murder is all that bad anymore.  Anyone can see this in the ever-increasing rate of school shootings by troubled teenagers who, in time past, might have done something unhealthy but not murderous.  It is not possible to physically prevent every such depravity simply by deploying cops - as the Black Lives Matter thugs point out, occasionally truthfully, monsters can be found in uniforms too.  Eliminating firearms, even if that were possible, won't help either - gun-free London is suffering under an onslaught of deadly knife attacks.  If knives are banned, of course, people will bash each other over the head with rocks or stab them with pencils or umbrellas.

What stops people from doing whatever self-beneficial depravity they think they can get away with is simply the fear that there is (or even might be) an all-seeing, all-powerful Person watching what you do.  It doesn't so much matter which God, or even that we all agree on Who He is specifically, so long as the basic rules are the same.  This hasn't always been the case - there've been plenty of wars of religion - but, right now, all major religions save one agree on what the fundamental rights and wrongs are, so we're able to get along.

Our society is collapsing because there are no common rules anymore.  Even the supposedly atheistic Chinese Communists are seeking to bring carefully-controlled religions faith back into their society to tame their rampant corruption.

In establishing the expectation that the religious beliefs of individual politicians would not, could not, and should not affect their political positions, JFK may have bought himself the White House, but in taking religious faith out of politics he destroyed what every past civilization has found to be essential to ongoing survival.