Sixty Years Later: Appreciating Kennedy’s Houston Speech

Tom Flynn

Cover Image Courtesy of NASA


On September 12, 1960—almost exactly sixty years before this issue’s publication—John Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered the speech that opened his path to the White House. At that time, no Roman Catholic had been elected president. Four-time New York Governor Al Smith had won the Democratic nomination in 1928; though he carried America’s twelve largest cities, rich with immigrants and Catholics as they were,1 he lost the general election. Protestant anti-Catholicism was then so open that an editorial in the mainstream Christian Century could smear Smith as “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.” By 1960, attitudes had changed—somewhat. Still, Kennedy knew that if he were to attract the votes of millions of American Protestants, he would need to reassure them that he was an independent leader who would not meekly do the bidding of Rome.

At the same time, America was taking its first tentative steps toward worldview pluralism. American Catholics were drawing closer to the mainstream, if not quite in it yet. Meanwhile, a harsh era of quotas restricting the number of Jews in business and higher education was fading. “Protestant America” was on the cusp of becoming “Judeo-Christian America”—a modest step when viewed from a nonreligious perspective, but a genuine step forward all the same.

Amid all this, candidate Kennedy mounted the dais at a convention of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Before hundreds of skeptical Protestant clergymen, he delivered an address that not only redefined his candidacy but set a new agenda for American attitudes toward religion in public life that would be influential for decades to come. “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair,” he proclaimed, “neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

Kennedy’s 1960 speech was strongly secularist and secularizing. He would, in the words of Catholic commentator George Weigel,propose an America in which everyone’s Christian convictions were out-of-bounds in public life, whether those convictions were expressed ‘directly or indirectly.’” Weigel disapproved of the strategy, but even he conceded its necessity: “The depth of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. in 1960 was such that it may have taken a candidate who was far more a modern rationalist than a man formed by the social doctrine of the Church to break the Catholic glass ceiling in American presidential politics.”2

In any case, Kennedy’s vibrant speech set the tone for everything from the U.S. Supreme Court’s school prayer decisions of 1962 and 1963 to the way generations of Catholic officials would manage conflicts between their own values and the teachings of their church. Longtime New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who embraced his Catholic identity while retaining a muscular commitment to reproductive choice, was perhaps the most prominent inheritor of the tradition Kennedy launched at Houston.

Indeed, the speech was so influential that twenty-four years later, conservative Protestant intellectual Richard John Neuhaus would blame it for effectively exiling religious language from public discourse—a most worthy achievement, in my view—in his influential 1984 book The Naked Public Square. As late as 2007, conservative pundit Ken Connor would look back on the speech as “the Kennedy Catastrophe.” (If I quote a from selection of Kennedy’s detractors, it is to emphasize that even they agreed that the impact of the Houston speech must not be underestimated.)

Yet one more conservative critic, Colleen Carroll Campbell, put it this way: “The answer Kennedy offered in Houston to the challenge of religious pluralism—that religion should be relegated to the private realm and deprived of its meaning-making role in American democracy—soon came to dominate American public life.”3 Campbell found something negative in that. To me, Kennedy crafted the perfect response to “the challenge of religious pluralism,” one that served us well for decades and from which today’s society retreats at its peril.

Herewith, the full text of Kennedy’s epochal speech:

Kennedy: While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign: the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers only ninety miles from the coast of Florida; the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors’ bills, the families forced to give up their farms; and an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues—for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured—perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So, it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.

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.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. 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. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division, which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe, a great office that must be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding it—its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty; nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it.

I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service, or dinner his office may appropriately require of him to fulfill; and whose fulfillment of his presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.

This is the kind of America I believe in—and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened—I quote—”the freedoms for which our forefathers died.”

And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die 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, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom—and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes, and McCafferty, and Bailey, and Badillo, and Carey—but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition—to judge me on the basis of fourteen years in the Congress, on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools—which I attended myself. And instead of doing this, do not judge me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic Church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and rarely relevant to any situation here. And always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly endorsed church-state separation and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic.

I do not consider these other quotations binding upon my public acts. Why should you?

But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or protestant, to compel, prohibit, or prosecute the free exercise of any other religion. And that goes for any persecution, at any time, by anyone, in any country. And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their Presidency to protestants and those which deny it to Catholics. And rather than cite the misdeeds of those who differ, I would also cite the record of the Catholic Church in such nations as France and Ireland, and the independence of such statesmen as De Gaulle and Adenauer.

But let me stress again that these are my views.

For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President.

I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views—in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come—and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible—when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.

But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or protestant faith; nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.

If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I’d tried my best and was fairly judged.

But if this election is decided on the basis that forty million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

But if, on the other hand, I should win this election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the Presidency—practically identical, I might add, with the oath I have taken for fourteen years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can, “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution—so help me God.”

My thanks to Center for Inquiry Chair Eddie Tabash for reminding me of the importance of this speech.




1 David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005, p. 153.

2 George Weigel, “What JFK Wrought at Houston,” n.d., accessed July 1, 2020.

3 Colleen Carroll Campbell, “The Enduring Costs of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise,” n.d., accessed July 1, 2020.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).