John F. Kennedy Explains Why Religious Tests Aren’t Okay In America

John F. Kennedy Explains Why Religious Tests Aren’t Okay In America

The same sort of respectful and tolerant stance held by President Kennedy on religion should be what guides Barrett's nomination process.
Jane Hampton Cook
By

Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, has already faced anti-Christian bigotry. “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., famously ridiculed Barrett during her 2017 confirmation hearing for the Seventh Circuit Court.

Sixty years ago this month, a Democrat defended his Catholic faith in a history-making speech that warned against imposing a religious test on government officials. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy told Protestant ministers he didn’t “look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection.”

In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, Kennedy reiterated:

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.

During the 1960 primary, Kennedy’s Democratic opponents encouraged people to vote against him because he was a Catholic. At the time of this speech, he faced similar antagonism in the general election. Instead, in an effort to promote American unity, Kennedy affirmed:

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal — where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice — where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.

At the time, then-Senator Kennedy was running against then-Vice President Richard Nixon, a Quaker.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew — or a Quaker — or a Unitarian — or a Baptist,” Kennedy pointed out. “It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom.”

After invoking 1776, Kennedy warned against a religious test both in 1960 and in the future. Believing there were more pressing issues facing Americans in 1960, including the spread of Communism 90 miles off of America’s shores in Cuba, he drove the point home:

Today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Today we are in a time of great national peril. On top of Marxist riots on our streets, a pandemic, an economic recovery, and a divisive presidential election, we don’t need the Senate adding a religious test to a Supreme Court nominee to exacerbate our lack of national unity.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Barrett in 2017 if she was a devout Catholic. “If you are asking whether I take my faith seriously and I’m a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious beliefs would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge,” Barrett answered.

In 2018 two Democrats, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, scrutinized federal judicial nominee Brian Buescher over his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable organization. The Knights of Columbus blasted their anti-Christian rhetoric.

“We were extremely disappointed to see that one’s commitment to Catholic principles through membership in the Knights of Columbus — a charitable organization that adheres to and promotes Catholic teachings — would be viewed as a disqualifier from public service in this day and age,” Knights of Columbus spokesperson Kathleen Blomquist responded, noting that anti-Catholic bigotry had actually launched the Knights of Columbus.

The same sort of respectful and tolerant stance held by President Kennedy on religion should be what guides Barrett’s nomination process. Kennedy held that his views on what kind of America he believed in were more important to his duty and role as the president of the United States than what kind of church he believed in. The same should be said for Barrett. Her judicial philosophy and how she would interpret the law are more important than her membership in any particular religious faith or denomination.

Indeed, the nation’s founders were not originally united “Under God.“ They added freedom of worship to the U.S. Constitution to protect religious liberty and unite Americans, as Kennedy explained in his speech. Kennedy noted there was no religious test at the Alamo when people died for freedom, a site he had visited that morning. He explained:

And in fact, this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died — when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches — when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

Two weeks after Kennedy gave this historic speech, Kennedy and Vice President Nixon engaged in the first televised presidential debate. What is most notable about that historic debate 60 years ago on September 26, 1960, is what wasn’t mentioned. Missing throughout the evening’s battle of ideas and words were any mentions of Catholicism. Kennedy’s earlier speech had lowered the temperature on this issue.

It’s time to lower the temperature in 2020. Before anyone questions Barrett, senators in both parties and all interested Americans should read and watch President Kennedy’s speech and stand firm against religious prejudice. We should also remember the words of the first Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court as we consider placing the first Catholic woman on the Supreme Court:

There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance. Then and only then shall we have a world built on the foundation of the Fatherhood of God and whose structure is the Brotherhood of Man.

Those words, of course, came from the pen of the recently departed Ruth Bader Ginsburg. More remarkable is that she wrote them at age 13.

Let us remember the words of JFK and RBG as we consider ACB. Our shared national identity grounded in the freedom of religion should bring us together, not break us apart.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of the new book, "Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women’s Battle for the Vote." The first female webmaster for the White House (2001-03), she is now a screenwriter and author of ten books, including "Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War."

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