The Enduring Costs of JFK's Compromise

By Colleen Carroll Campbell

What role should a Catholic politician's faith play in his governing decisions? After dominating U.S. headlines during the 2004 presidential contest between Catholic Senator John Kerry and Methodist President George W. Bush, the question has emerged again. The midterm elections of 2006 swept pro-choice Catholic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi into the third-highest position in the U.S. government, cost the pro-life movement more than a dozen House and Senate seats, and found Catholic voters migrating back to the Democratic Party despite its staunch support for legal abortion. Pro-abortion Catholic and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has informally launched a presidential bid, as has pro-life Catholic Senator Sam Brownback. And the U.S. bishops recently released a statement affirming that Catholics must uphold Church teaching in public life if they wish to receive Communion.

The controversy over America's Catholic politicians connects to a more fundamental question confronting dozens of pluralistic democracies today: Should religious convictions and religiously-based moral principles be confined to the private realm, or should they inform our public policy debates? And what role must the Catholic politician play in articulating those beliefs and principles?

The most prominent American Catholic politician to address those questions was President John F. Kennedy, whose landmark 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association indelibly influenced a generation of aspiring Catholic politicians. His speech, and a later address by Catholic New York Governor Mario Cuomo that applied Kennedy's arguments to the abortion debate, go a long way toward explaining the trend toward compartmentalization of faith and politics that prevails among Catholic politicians today—and offer clues about how it can be reversed.


The impact of Kennedy's speech can be fully understood only in light of the situation of American Catholics in his day and earlier. Ensconced in what has been called the "Catholic ghetto" – a pre-Vatican II world of May crownings, Corpus Christi processions, and Friday fish fries – Catholics were largely insulated from a larger Protestant culture that was deeply suspicious of their faith. Catholics had always been different from America's Protestant majority: They had their own schools and hospitals, their own holidays and heroes, even their own religious lexicon. In a nation shaped by the Protestant rejection of authority and tradition, Catholics looked to their priests, bishops, and pope for guidance on life's most intimate and important questions. American Anti-Catholicism had waxed and waned through the centuries – it reached fever pitch with the massive influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century – but Catholics had survived by relying on a closely knit religious subculture for shelter, support, and a sense of belonging.

That subculture had propelled Catholics to leadership positions in immigrant-rich cities like New York, but never to the Oval Office. Democratic presidential candidate and Tammany Hall political veteran Al Smith learned that lesson the hard way in 1928, when he lost in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover. Historians now agree that the nation's prosperity had made Hoover's victory inevitable, but Smith's Irish Catholic background did not help him. According to political scientist Lawrence Fuchs, an estimated 10 million anti-Catholic handbills, leaflets, and posters had been rushed into circulation within a week to defeat Smith. They reflected a widespread fear among Protestants that the election of a Catholic President would mean, in the words of an editorial in the mainline Protestant journal, Christian Century, "the seating of the representative of an alien culture, of a medieval, Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the President of the United States."

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