Kennedy speech eloquently balanced religion, politics

September 12, 2010

Fifty years ago today, then-Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy delivered the most important speech yet in his political career. As he sought to overcome concerns many Protestant Christians had about his Catholicism, Kennedy traveled to Houston to give a speech on religion and politics. Yesterday, my latest column appeared in the Houston Chronicle and recounted the importance of Kennedy's speech. The column is entitled "Kennedy speech eloquently balanced religion, politics." Others also recently recounted the speech, including David Broder in a Washington Post column, Gary Scott Smith in a column, and several legal experts in a Catholic News Agency article.

One individual not a fan of Kennedy's speech is former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. A Catholic who is considering running for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination (despite getting creamed in his reelection campaign in Pennsylvania in 2006), Santorum traveled to Houston a couple of days ago to deliver a speech critical of JFK's approach to religion and politics. Santorum called his speech "A Charge to Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square." In it, he proved he is not only a bad politician, but also a bad historian and theologian. Santorum's first major problem is that JFK's approach to religion and politics is no longer the dominant paradigm. Thus, there is little point to argue against it or blame it for today's religious-political culture. This is a major finding of my forthcoming book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics) as I document how successful presidential candidates the last three decades have employed a substantially different approach to religion and politics. In essence, most of today's national politicians are already more like Santorum than Kennedy. Santorum's other major problem is that his idea of mixing religion and politics more is not healthy either for democratic principles or religion. Santorum's speech suggests that if another Catholic finally follows JFK and moves into the Oval Office, it will be someone who employs a vastly different approach to religion and politics than what Kennedy articulated fifty years ago today.