John F. Kennedy’s watershed speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 still reverberates. Kennedy, of course, was a Catholic, and a group of Protestant ministers that election year had promised to “oppose with all powers at our command, the election of a Catholic to the Presidency of the United States.” Norman Vincent Peale, one of the most revered clergymen in the country, headed another religious group that stated that the Catholic Church was a “political as well as a religious organization” that had frequently repudiated the sacred principle “that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.” Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State stated that it could not avoid the “fact that one church in the U.S., the largest church operating on American soil, officially supports a world-wide policy of partial union of church and state where it has the power to enforce such a policy.”
In his masterful Houston speech, Kennedy responded:
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 accepts 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. . . .
Whatever issue may come before me as president — 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 the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures 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 even 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 the same.
Kennedy’s speech defused his “Catholic issue,” helped him win the election, and has had a lasting effect. Mainstream figures no longer question a Catholic’s fitness for the presidency. I don’t remember John Kerry’s religion being raised in a negative way at all when he ran for president. Indeed, we have gone further. Polite political society tends to eschew any questions about how an office seeker’s religious beliefs might affect his governmental performance. (See, e.g., Mitt Romney.) Even if, however, this is generally a good thing, there are times that we should drop this political correctness.
Stretch your mind to the now unthinkable and imagine that a practicing Muslim has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Should Senators inquire how the nominee’s religious beliefs might affect his judicial duties? Should he be asked about his views of Sharia law and how those views might influence his interpretation of the Constitution? Should he be asked about Islamic beliefs concerning the roles of women in society and how this might affect his constitutional interpretation?
Look again at what Kennedy pledged. He stated that if his presidential duties conflicted with his religious conscience, he would resign the presidency. He, in effect, promised to be a secular president. Should we demand that the hypothetical Muslim Supreme Court nominee make similar promises and then gauge the sincerity of his response?
Perhaps the most significant development from Kennedy’s speech has been on the Supreme Court. We have not elected another Catholic as President, but the Supreme Court, which for generations had but one Roman Catholic, now has five Catholics out of the eight justices. The conservative bloc of four are all Catholic men: John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, three of whom were educated in Catholic schools. Brett Kavanaugh, also educated in Catholic schools, if confirmed, is expected to join those four men on the conservative wing of the Court.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, however, has avoided important issues. I am not referring here to Professor Ford’s allegations and whether she or the nominee have been treated fairly, but to the politically incorrect topic of Kavanaugh’s religious views. JFK, who attended public schools, maintained that his religious views were irrelevant in his quest for the White House. In that Houston speech, he stated, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens to be Catholic.” Even so, Protestant evangelicals opposed Kennedy. Evangelicals today, on the other hand, enthusiastically ly support Kavanaugh. Why? Because part of the reason that Kavanaugh was nominated and has such support is because it is believed that his religious background will affect his constitutional interpretations. Thus, his religious views are germane to whether he should be on the Supreme Court, and he should be asked about them.
For example: Does he believe that abortion is a sin? If ruling as a justice would preserve a woman’s right to choose, would he be committing a sin? Does he believe that artificial contraception is a sin? Would he feel that he is committing a sin if he preserved or extended people’s access to birth control? Are LGBTQ people committing sins because of their sexuality? Would he be committing a sin if he preserves, recognizes, or extends their constitutional rights? And furthermore, Judge Kavanaugh, do you believe that it is God’s will that women have a limited role in the Catholic Church? How does that affect your views about the issues that affect women’s role in society that come before the Court? Have the sexual abuse scandals in the Church affected your thinking about other sexual abuse and harassment claims that come to court? Would you resign if your faith conflicts with your duties as a Supreme Court Justice?
John F. Kennedy addressed the connection between his religious beliefs and his governmental duties. We should end the present incorrect political correctness and seek answers to such questions from a Supreme Court nominee.
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