1960 September 12

John F. Kennedy Gives Historic Speech on Religious Liberty


John F. Kennedy, Democratic Party candidate for president, gave a speech to Baptist ministers in Houston, Texas, on this evening, in which he explained his views on the place of religion in politics. Kennedy had recently been attacked by a Protestant group as a Catholic who would impose his faith’s doctrines on the country (see September 7, 1960). Kennedy explained that he strongly supported both the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. The speech was immediately regarded as a great success, winning over a generally hostile audience and putting to rest the religious objections to his candidacy.

Prejudice against Catholics, and the idea that a Catholic could never be elected president of the United States, flared up in the 1928 presidential election. There were many attacks on Democratic Party candidate Al Smith because of his Catholicism, many of which were led by the Ku Klux Klan. See the events of April 18, 1927; September 18, 1928; and October 6, 1928. Smith lost by a large margin to Herbert Hoover in the election.

Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic elected president of the United States. Kennedy’s speech is arguably the most eloquent statement about religion and politics by any president or presidential candidate in modern times.

Kennedy: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Read the complete speech: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkhoustonministers.html

View the speech on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBNlS8Zg1WA

Learn more: Shaun Casey, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (2009)

Read: Jeremy Gunn and John Witte, No Establishment of Religion: America’s Original Contribution to Religious Liberty (2012)

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