Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Santorum’s Twisted Take on JFK & Religion

Rick Santorum misrepresented what John F. Kennedy said in 1960 about church-state separation. According to Santorum, Kennedy said that religious people could “have no role in the public square” and “should not be permitted . . . to influence public policy.” But Kennedy didn’t say those things. He said he wouldn’t take orders from the Vatican if elected president.

On ABC’s “This Week,” the former Pennsylvania senator said Feb. 26 that Kennedy’s embrace of an “absolute” separation of church and state made him sick.

Santorum, ABC’s “This Week”: I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.

. . . Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith. . . . [T]o say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.

And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the same day, Santorum said Kennedy’s “absolute” separation means “people of faith should not be permitted in the public square to influence public policy.”

Santorum, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: That is not the founders’ vision. That’s not the America that was made the greatest country in the history of the world. The idea that people of faith should not be permitted in the public square to influence public policy is antithetical to the First Amendment, which says the free exercise of religion — James Madison called people of faith, and by the way no faith and different faith — the ability to come in the public square with diverse opinions, motivated by a variety of different ideas and passions, the perfect remedy. Why — because everybody is allowed in.

It’s true that in his famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy stated his belief in an “absolute” separation. But Santorum reads into that speech things that Kennedy did not actually say.

Kennedy, who was then the Democratic nominee for president, was assuring Protestant ministers that he would not be taking orders from the Vatican should he become the first Catholic to be elected to the White House.

Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1960: 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.

But in his speech — and in his answers to several questions and answers that followed — he referred to the church “hierarchy” and the Pope, and church doctrine. He never said that religious people could not voice their opinions. We find nothing in Kennedy’s words that could be reasonably construed to say that Kennedy would not “consult with people of faith,” as Santorum claimed.

To the contrary, Kennedy made clear his support for “religious liberty” and said he wanted the president to be “responsible to all.”

Kennedy: 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. . . .

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.

In the questions that followed Kennedy’s speech (which can be seen in a video of the entire event posted by C-Span) the ministers asked whether the Vatican would “direct” him or would be “guiding” him as president.

For example, in an exchange that starts at about 28:08 on the C-Span recording, Kennedy was asked whether the Catholic Church had a right and “privilege” to “direct” members in areas including “the political realm.”

Question: [W]hat we would like to know, if you are elected president, and your church elects to use that privilege and obligation, what your response will be under those circumstances.

Kennedy: If my church attempted to influence me in a way which was improper, or which affected adversely my responsibility as a public servant sworn to uphold the Constitution, then I would reply to them this was an improper action on their part; it was one to which I could not subscribe; that I was opposed to it. It would be an unfortunate breach of, an interference with the American political system.

At another point, Kennedy was asked (starting at about 33:40 on the C-Span recording)  about a statement attributed to Pope John XXIII, that “the Catholic hierarchy has the right and duty of guiding” Catholics “to the common aid.”

Kennedy: Guiding them in what area? If you are talking about in the area of faith and morals, and the instructions of the Church, I would think any Baptist minister or Congregational minister has the right and duty to try to guide his flock. If you mean by that statement that the Pope or anyone else could bind me in the fulfillment, by a statement in the fulfillment of my public duties, I say no. … It all has to do with what you mean by ‘guide.’

But none of the ministers asked Kennedy if he meant that “faith is not allowed in the public square” or that he “won’t consult with people of faith,” the assertions that Santorum now puts in Kennedy’s mouth. Kennedy didn’t say those things, and if any of the ministers who were present in 1960 thought that’s what he meant, none of them said so at the time.

— Brooks Jackson