March 10, 2024 Essay: John F. Kennedy & The Houston Speech

Feb 27, 2024

In September 1960, the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had what he and his advisors called a “Catholic Problem” that never seemed to go away. Despite famous interviews in Life magazine and regular statements in the press outlining an exceedingly solid wall of separation between church and state, Protestant and secular voices regularly issued thinly veiled warnings of the danger of a Catholic in the White House. Their concerns spanned the spectrum from hooded patriots burning crosses in the night to highly respected public intellectuals like Union Theological Seminary’s Reinhold Niebuhr, the most respected Protestant theologian in mid-twentieth century America. Niebuhr’s critique (typically brilliant) was not that Kennedy was a Catholic, but rather that he was a bad Catholic, not really understanding his own faith tradition. The only previous Catholic candidate to receive his party’s nomination for that office—New York State’s “wet” governor, Al Smith—had lost the 1928 presidential election by the largest margin of votes up to that time, and officials of both major parties viewed the chances of any Catholic candidate winning a presidential election as very thin after the 1928 debacle. In the fall of 1960, Kennedy seemed headed for a similar loss at the polls, and the secular press made much of the fears of Protestant voters across the spectrum in allowing a Catholic to function as the “high priest” of America’s civil religion.

It was, therefore, with a heavy heart, that Kennedy accepted the invitation to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, 300 evangelical Protestant clergymen strong, gathered in the ballroom of Houston’s Rice Hotel two months before the election. In the course of that address—now generally known as the “Houston Speech”—JFK outlined what many at the time (and since) considered a problematic “privatization” of religious belief for public officials: “I want a president whose religious beliefs are his own private affair,” Kennedy asserted before the assembled ministers, “a president for whom no religious belief or commitment takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution.” Catholic journals at the time voiced surprise and confusion about the Houston Speech. The Jesuit editor of America, in his editorial the week after the address, noted that “Mr. Kennedy can’t really believe that: no religious person can believe that.”

Kennedy’s address is credited with winning him the presidency, but pundits at the time and since (both Catholic and Protestant) have questioned the price of that win: While the Houston Speech did seem to convince enough voters that Kennedy’s Catholicism posed no threat to the separation of church and state to elect him, many scholars—especially Catholic historians—have raised troubling question of whether JFK’s speech made the road to the presidency a much more difficult task for Catholic politicians. Many Catholic bishops at the time, most publicly New York Cardinal Francis Spellman, supported the Republic candidate, Richard Nixon, and Catholic bishops since have tended to be quite critical of Catholic candidates who—like JFK—have erected a wall between their personal faith and their public policy commitments.

— Mark Massa, S.J., Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life & Professor of Theology at Boston College

Join us on Monday, March 11th at 7 PM in Wallace Hall , as Fr. Massa presents John F. Kennedy, The Houston Speech, and Catholic Citizenship, which will explore the impact of John F. Kennedy’s ‘Houston Speech’ on the Catholic presidential candidates who followed him.