Palin No Jack Kennedy

November 28, 2010

In her new book, political celebrity Sarah Palin critiques John F. Kennedy's famous address on religion and politics, which he delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance during the 1960 presidential campaign. Palin criticizes JFK for wanting to "run away from religion" and for not supporting government support of religious groups and schools. She does, however, correctly note: "In fairness, Kennedy was speaking at a different time." Palin also praised Mitt Romney for not "doing a JFK" during the 2008 campaign, correctly noting that Romney's speech on religion and politics represented the opposite approach as JFK's. Palin's critique comes as no surprise since, as she noted about Romney, JFK's approach no longer guides our nation's presidential candidates. In fact, back in September, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum delivered a speech attacking JFK's speech (I critiqued Santorum's arguments in an earlier post). Unlike Santorum, however, Palin at least recognizes that times have changed and that JFK's approach no longer dominates the political landscape.

When the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's speech on religion and politics occurred in September, I had a column in the Houston Chronicle that recounted the importance of Kennedy's speech. The column was entitled "Kennedy speech eloquently balanced religion, politics." In it, I argued that JFK's approach embodied our nation's democratic ideals. I offer a similar argument in my forthcoming book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics), in which I examine how recent presidential candidates use religion in their campaign rhetoric and how this approach differs dramatically from what JFK advocated. Regardless of who wins the 2012 presidential election--whether it be Palin, Santorum, Romney, Obama, or some other prominent politicians--it seems likely that the winner will be someone who is closer to Palin's argument on religion and politics than JFK's.



UPDATE [12-7-10]:
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, JFK's niece and former Lt. Governor of Maryland, offered a great critique of Palin's comments. Here are a couple of highlights from her Washington Post column:
Palin's argument seems to challenge a great American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, stipulating that there be no religious test for public office. ... And she seems to think that she, and those who think like her, are qualified to judge who would pass and who would not.

... John F. Kennedy knew that tearing down the wall separating church and state would tempt us toward self-righteousness and contempt for others. That is one reason he delivered his Houston speech.

... Palin fails to understand the genius of our nation. The United States is one of the most vibrant religious countries on Earth precisely because of its religious freedom. When power and faith are entwined, faith loses.
Amen!

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