Time Magazine contains an article by Nancy Gibbs entitled "The Catholic Conundrum: The Lessons of JFK." Here is the opening paragraph.
- John F. Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 came soaked in symbols and lessons. It was the triumph of vision over experience, rich over poor, East over West, the playboy over the prig. And because a Catholic, for the first time ever, defeated a Protestant, the outcome was said to mark the burial of religious bigotry. Kennedy provided the case study for candidates ever since who have faced some version of the Religion Test. But his was an advanced course in strategy, judgment and rhetoric, and it may be harder for future candidates to pass than they realize.
Though not a lengthy read, this article is, nevertheless, interesting. It provides a glimpse into the modern political realities of Religion in America, especially the overt emergence of Roman Catholics, the latest prototype of which was JFK. His use of modern communications and the Press provided him the platform to present Himself and his views to the Nation in a way which allowed him to overcome his huge Catholic handicap. This "way" of presenting Himself provides us the "interesting" aspect.
I'll state it simply. JFK accomplished the Presidency of the United States by exploiting the ignorance of the American People. The above article partially bears this out by providing some details of his struggle to overcome deep seated Anti-Catholic bias within the religious circles of certain segments of the American populace. And how did he overcome such insurmountable religious bigotry? He used the same tactic any good policitican uses. He spoke in terms that his audience understood without meaning what his audience thought he meant. He used religious terms that His Protestant audience could identify with. This same audience didn't understand that the Catholic meanings of these terms was inherently different. Nor did they understand the Catholic system which governed actions surrounding these different terms.
Nancy Gibbs details a few of the particulars of this message and strategy to woo these Protestant bigots. Surprisingly, it was the same type of message and strategy which had been employed by him since his first run for Congress in 1946. The only difference was in the immensity of the bias to be overcome on a national scale, whereas his Congressional task was to attract fellow Catholics, which he easily did. But both entailed wooing the Religious minded voter. Here's how he did it.
Instead of avoiding the issue in silence, he met it head on and personally determied the issue and language of the dialogue. Instead of the issue being Catholic vs. Protestant, he framed the dilaogue using "tolerance" as the operative word, thereby easing the inherent enmity of the two groups. He took the high middle ground. This strategy came about slowly but two occasions served to provide the impetus, opportunity and necessity to continue.
The first was just prior to the West Virginia primary. "On the Sunday night just before the vote, he paid for a half-hour TV special. The candidate reminded viewers of what a bold break with history it had been when the founders knit religious pluralism into the fabric of the state. And then he looked straight at the camera and observed that when Presidents place their hand on the Bible to swear their oath of office, they are swearing to support the constitutional separation of church and state. Kennedy raised his hand as if from an imaginary Bible. If a President breaks his oath, Kennedy declared, "he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him—and should impeach him—but he is committing a sin against God."
The second occasion was in response to a conservative Protestant Leadership conference held in Washington DC which was basically an anti Kennedy rally. He chose to address the Houston Ministerial Alliance.
- "Kennedy told them he had come to talk about "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." And then he made the prescient point, relevant to any member of a religious minority then or in years to come: "While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed," he warned, "in other years it has been—and may someday be again—a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist... Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart."
- The speech was clean and raw and rational: he made the dispassionate arguments, but he also noted that his vision of a fair-minded America was the one he had fought for in the South Pacific and for which his brother had died in the war in Europe. He reaffirmed his complete independence from any Vatican agenda. But in the most dramatic flourish, he went further, in an extraordinary testimony to just how important that private faith was to him: "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." "
The average Protestant hearing these words couldn't help but hold JFK in high regard because they were the words of a man fulfilling his oath, which was sacred. According to Protestant tradition and Scripture interpretation, a person swearing an oath, even if that oath was in violation of a direct command of God, was still held accountable by God to fulfill the terms of the oath. JKF was telling them that he was just such a man of his word.
Not many Protestants, though, are aware of the various ways the Roman Catholic Church allows sin to be committed without being imputed to the account of a person before God. Under these various rules, the end justifies the means. This allows a person to pursue a course which, ultimately, is double minded and ambiguous. Any conclusions drawn by others is subject to which side of the ambiguity they happen to be on. Regardless of the thoughts of others, actions of this type can and are officially absolved by Leaders, with the approval of God. Those who may view these actions as sinful or dishonorable are deemed to be intolerant.
If you don't agree with this view of JFK, especially his supposedly serious attitude regarding his personal oath, I ask you to simply consider the state of his oath of Marriage towards the First Lady while he was in office. Enough said.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed in the last four decades. Leaders continue to exploit the ignorance of the populace, especially among the religious ranks. And its not a Democrat - Republican issue. It's across the political spectrum. A wink, a nod, a smile..........and a smooth lie.......all in the name of keeping an oath. All of this from the honorable world of Politics!