Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., April 21, 1960 "The Religion Issue in American Politics"

I have decided, in view of current press reports, that it would be appropriate to speak with you today about what has widely been called "the religious issue" in American politics. The phrase covers a multitude of meanings. There is no religious issue in the sense that any of the major candidates differ on the role of religion in our political life. Every Presidential contender, I am certain, is dedicated to the separation of church and state, to the preservation of religious liberty, to an end to religious bigotry, and to the total independence of the office-holder from any form of ecclesiastical dictation.

Nor is there any real issue in the sense that any candidate is exploiting his religious affiliation. No one's candidacy, by itself, raises a religious issue. And I believe it is inaccurate to state that my "candidacy created the issue" - that, because I am replying to the bigots, I am now "running on the religious issue in West Virginia" - or that my statements in response to interrogation are "fanning the controversy". I am not "trying to be the first Catholic President," as some have written. I happen to believe I can serve my nation as President - and I also happen to have been born a Catholic.

Nor am I appealing, as is too often claimed, to a so-called Catholic vote. Even if such a vote exists - which I doubt - I want to make one thing clear again: I want no votes solely on account of my religion. Any voter, Catholic or otherwise, who feels another candidate would be a superior President should support that candidate. I do not want any vote cast for me for such illogical reasons.

Neither do I want anyone to support my candidacy merely to prove that this nation is not bigoted - and that a Catholic can be elected President. I have never suggested that those opposed to me are thereby anti-Catholic. There are ample legitimate grounds for supporting other candidates - (though I will not, of course, detail them here). Nor have I ever suggested that the Democratic party is required to nominate me or face a Catholic revolt in November. I do not believe that to be true - I cannot believe our convention would act on such a premise - and I do believe that a majority of Americans of every faith will support the Democratic nominee, whoever he is.

What, then, is the so-called religious issue in American politics today? It is not, it seems to me, my actual religious convictions - but a misunderstanding of what those convictions actually are. It is not the actual existence of religious voting blocs - but a suspicion that such voting blocs may exist. And when we deal with such public fears and suspicions, the American press has a very grave responsibility.

I know the press did not create this religious issue. My religious affiliation is a fact - religious intolerance is a fact. And the proper role of the press is to report all facts that are a matter of public interest.

But the press has a responsibility, I think you will agree, which goes far beyond a reporting of the facts. It goes beyond lofty editorials deploring intolerance. For my religion is hardly, in this critical year of 1960, the dominant issue of our time. It is hardly the most important criterion - or even a relevant criterion - on which the American people should make their choice for Chief Executive. And the press, while not creating the issue, will largely determine whether or not it does become dominant - whether it is kept in perspective - whether it is considered objectively - whether needless fears and suspicions are stilled instead of aroused.

The members of the press should report the facts as they find them. They should describe the issues as they see them. But they should beware, it seems to me, of either magnifying this issue or oversimplifying it. They should beware of ignoring the vital issues of this campaign, while filling their pages with analyses that cannot be proven, with statements that cannot be documented and with emphasis which cannot be justified.

I spoke in Wisconsin, for example, on farm legislation, foreign policy, defense, civil rights and several dozen other issues. The people of Wisconsin seemed genuinely interested in these addresses. But I rarely found them reported in the press - except when they were occasionally sandwiched in between descriptions of my hand-shaking, my theme-song, family haircut, and inevitably, my religion.

At almost every stop in Wisconsin I invited questions - and the questions came - on price supports, labor unions, disengagement, taxes and inflation. But there sessions were rarely reported in the press except when one topic was discussed: religion. One article, for example, supposedly summing the primary up in advance, mentioned the word Catholic 20 times in 15 paragraphs - not mentioning even once dairy farms, disarmament, labor legislation or any other issue. And on the Sunday before the Primary, the Milwaukee Journal featured a map of the state, listing county by county the relative strength of three types of voters - Democrats, Republicans and Catholics.

In West Virginia, it is the same story. As reported in yesterday's Washington Post, the great bulk of West Virginians paid very little attention to my religion - until they read repeatedly in the nation's press that this was the decisive issue in West Virginia. There are many serious problems in that state - problems big enough to dominate any campaign - but religion is not one of them.

I do not think that religion is the decisive issue in any state. I do not think it should be. I do not think it should be made to be. And recognizing my own responsibilities in that regard, I am hopeful that you will recognize yours also.

For the past months and years, I have answered almost daily inquiries from the press about the religious issue. I want to take this opportunity to turn the tables - to raise some questions for your thoughtful consideration.

First: Is the religious issue a legitimate issue in this campaign? There is only one legitimate question underlying all the rest: would you, as President of the United States, be responsive in any way to ecclesiastical pressures or obligations of any kind that might in any fashion influence or interfere with your conduct of that office in the national interest? I have answered that question many times. My answer was - and is "NO".

Once that question is answered, there is no legitimate issue of my religion. But there are, I think, legitimate questions of public policy - of concern to religious groups which no one should feel bigoted about raising, and to which I do not object to answering. But I do object to being the only candidate required to answer those questions.

Federal assistance to parochial schools, for example, is a very legitimate issue actually before the Congress. I am opposed to it. I believe it is clearly unconstitutional. I voted against it on the Senate floor this year, when offered by Senator Morse. But interestingly enough, I was the only announced candidate in the Senate who did so. (Nevertheless I have not yet charged my opponents with taking orders from Rome.)

An Ambassador to the Vatican could conceivably become a real issue again. I am opposed to it, and said so long ago. But even though it was last proposed by a Baptist President, I know of no other candidate who has been even asked about this matter.

The prospects of any President ever receiving for his signature a bill providing foreign aid funds for birth control are very remote indeed. It is hardly the major issue some have suggested. Nevertheless I have made it clear that I would neither veto nor sign such a bill on any basis except what I considered to be the public interest, without regard to my private religious views. I have said the same about bills dealing with censorship, divorce, our relations with Spain or any other subject.

These are legitimate inquiries about real questions which the next President may conceivably have to face. But these inquiries ought to be directed equally to all candidates. I have made it clear that I strongly support - out of conviction as well as Constitutional obligation - the guarantees of religious equality provided by the First Amendment - and I ask only that these same guarantees be extended to me.

Secondly: Can we justify analyzing voters as well as candidates strictly in terms of their religion? I think the voters of Wisconsin objected to being categorized simply as either Catholics or Protestants in analyzing their political choices. I think they objected to being accosted by reporters outside of political meetings and asked one question only - their religion - not their occupation or education or philosophy or income - only their religion.

And I think they had a right to object. The flood of post-primary analyses on the so-called "Catholic vote" and "Protestant vote" - carefully shaped to conform with their authors' pre-primary predictions - would never be published in any competent statistical journal.

Only this week, I received a very careful analysis of the Wisconsin results. It conclusively shows two significant patterns of bloc voting: I ran strongest in those areas where the average temperature in January was 20 degrees or higher, and poorest in those areas where it was 14 degrees or lower - and that I ran well in the beech tree and basswood counties and not so well among the hemlock and pine.

Anyone who thinks these trends are merely coincidences of no relevance has never tried to campaign in Wisconsin in January. In any event, this analysis is being rushed to West Virginia, where I am assured that the winter is less severe and the basswood are abundant. It has been suggested, however, that to offset my apparent political handicaps I may have to pick a running-mate from Maine or, preferably, Alaska.

The facts of the matter are that this analysis stands up statistically much better than all the so-called analyses of the religious vote. And so do analyses of each county based on their distance from the Minnesota border, the length of their Democratic tradition and their inclusion in my campaign itinerary. I carried some areas with large proportions of voters who are Catholics - and I lost some. I carried some areas where Protestants predominate - and I lost some.

It is true that I ran well in cities - and large numbers of Catholics live in cities. But so do union members and older voters and veterans and chess fans and basswood lovers. To say my support in the cities is due only to the religion of the voters is incapable of proof and an unfair indictment of their political maturity.

Of those Catholics who voted for me, how many did so on grounds of my religion - how many because they felt my opponent was too radical - how many because they resented the attacks on my record - how many because they were union members - how many for some other reason? I do not know. And the facts are that no one knows.

For voters are more than Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They make up their minds for many diverse reasons, good and bad. To submit the candidates to a religious test is unfair enough - to apply it to the voters themselves is divisive, degrading and wholly unwarranted.

Third and finally: Is there any justification for applying special religious tests to one office only: the Presidency? Little or no attention was paid to my religion when I took the oath as Senator in 1953 - as a Congressman in 1947 - or as a Naval officer in 1941. Members of my faith abound in public office at every level except the White House. What is there about the Presidency that justifies this constant emphasis upon a candidate's religion and that of his supporters?

The Presidency is not, after all, the British Crown, serving a dual capacity in both church and state. The President is not elected to be protector of the faith - or guardian of the public morals. His attendance at church on Sunday should be his business alone, not a showcase for the nation.

On the other hand, we are in no danger of a one-man Constitutional upheaval. The President, however intent he may be on subverting our institutions, cannot ignore the Congress - or the voters - or the courts. And our highest court, incidentally, has a long history of Catholic Justices, none of whom, as far as I know, was ever challenged on the fairness of his rulings on sensitive church-state issues.

Some may say we treat the Presidency differently because we have had only one previous Catholic candidate for President. But I am growing weary of that term. I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy - and no one in that Church speaks for me. My record on aid to education, aid to Tito, the Conant nomination and other issues has displeased some prominent Catholic clergymen and organizations; and it has been approved by others. The fact is that the Catholic Church is not a monolith - it is committed in this country to the principles of individual liberty - and it has no claim over my conduct as a public officer sworn to do the public interest.

So I hope we can see the beginning of the end of references to me as "the Catholic candidate" for President. Do not expect me to explain or defend every act or statement of every Pope or priest, in this country or some other, in this century or the last - and that includes the Mayor of Dijon.

* * * *

I have tried to examine with you today the press' responsibility in meeting this religious issue. The question remains: what is my responsibility? I am a candidate. The issue is here. Two alternatives have been suggested:

1) The first suggestion is that I withdraw to avoid a "dangerous religious controversy"; and accept the Vice Presidential nomination in order to placate the so-called Catholic vote.

I find that suggestion highly distasteful. It assumes the worst about a country which prides itself on being more tolerant and better educated than it was in 1928. It assumes that Catholics are a pawn on the political chess-board, moved hither and yon, and somehow "bought off" by the party putting in the second-spot a Catholic whom the party barred from the top. And it forgets, finally, that such a performance would have an effect on our image abroad as well as our self-respect here at home.

Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can serve in the Israeli Parliament - but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States? Are we to tell Chancellor Adenauer, for example, that we want him risking his all on our front-lines; but that - if he were an American - we would never entrust him with our Presidency - nor would we accept our distinguished guest, Gen. DeGaulle? Are we to admit to the world - worse still, are we to admit to ourselves - that one-third of our population is forever barred from the White House?

So I am not impressed by those pleas that I settle for the Vice Presidency in order to avert a religious spectacle. Surely those who believe it dangerous to elect a Catholic as President will not want him to serve as Vice President, a heart-beat away from the office.

2) The alternative is to proceed with the primaries, the convention and the election. If there is bigotry in the country, then so be it - there is bigotry. If that bigotry is too great to permit the fair consideration of a Catholic who has made clear his complete independence and his complete dedication to separation of church and state, then we ought to know it.

But I do not believe that this it the case. I believe the American people are more concerned with a man's views and abilities than with the church to which he belongs. I believe that the founding father meant it when they provided in Article VI of the Constitution that there should be no religious test for public office - a provision that brought not one dissenting vote, only the comment of Roger Sherman that it was surely unnecessary - "The prevailing legality being a sufficient security against such tests." And I believe that the American people mean to adhere to those principles today.

But regardless of the political outcome this issue is here to be faced. It is my job to face it frankly and fully. And it is your job to face it fairly, in perspective and in proportion.

I am confident that the press and other media of this country will recognize their responsibilities in this area - to refute falsehood, to inform the ignorant, and to concentrate on the issues, the real issues, in this hour of the nation's peril.

The Supreme Court has written that as public officials "We are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Catholic nor Agnostic. We owe equal attachment to the Constitution and are equally bound by our obligations whether we derive our citizenship from the earliest or latest immigrants to these shores .... for religion is outside the sphere of political government."

We must all - candidates, press, and voters alike dedicate ourselves to these principles - for they are the key to a free country.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 908, "American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., 21 April 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.