JFK addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial AssociationFifty years ago, in September 1960, the Democrat candidate in a close race for the American Presidency gave an important speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant pastors. As Catholic, John F. Kennedy was viewed with suspicion by many who did not share his faith. His speech successfully allayed their fears and may have put him in the White House. His view of the role of Christian faith in public life was later used to justify support for abortion, gay marriage and many other issues. In this powerful address at Houston Baptist University, a leading American Catholic spokesman, Archbishop Charles Chaput, criticises the Kennedy legacy.

One of the ironies in my talk tonight is
this.  I’m a Catholic bishop, speaking at a Baptist university in
America’s Protestant heartland.  But I’ve been welcomed with more
warmth and friendship than I might find at a number of Catholic
venues.  This is a fact worth discussing.  I’ll come back to it at the
end of my comments.  But I want to begin by thanking Drs. Sloan and
Bonicelli and the leadership of Houston Baptist University for their
extraordinary kindness in having me here tonight.   I’m very grateful
for their friendship.

I also want to thank my friend Dr. John Hittinger of the University
of St. Thomas.  Part of my pleasure in being here is to encourage his
efforts with the John Paul II Forum on the Church in the Modern World. 
The Forum is hugely important – and not just for Catholics, but for the
whole Christian community.  I’m grateful to the leadership of the
University of St. Thomas for supporting him.

I need to offer a few caveats before I turn to the substance of our discussion. 

The first caveat is this:  My thoughts tonight are purely my own.  I
don’t speak for the Holy See, or the American Catholic bishops, or the
Houston Catholic community.  In the Catholic tradition, the local
bishop is the chief preacher and teacher of the faith, and the shepherd
of the local Church.  Here in Houston you have an outstanding bishop –
a man of great Christian faith and intellect – in Cardinal Daniel
DiNardo.  In all things Catholic tonight, I’m glad to defer to his

Here’s my second caveat:  I’m here as a Catholic Christian and an American citizen
– in that order.  Both of these identities are important.  They don’t
need to conflict.  They are not, however, the same thing.  And they do
not have the same weight.  I love my country.  I revere the genius of
its founding documents and its public institutions.  But no nation, not
even the one I love, has a right to my allegiance, or my silence, in
matters that belong to God or that undermine the dignity of the human
persons He created. 

My third caveat is this:  Catholics and Protestants have different
memories of American history.  The historian Paul Johnson once wrote
that America was “born Protestant.1”   That’s clearly true.  Whatever America is today or may become tomorrow, its origin was
deeply shaped by a Protestant Christian spirit, and the fruit of that
spirit has been, on the balance, a great blessing for humanity.  But
it’s also true that, while Catholics have always thrived in the United
States, they lived through two centuries of discrimination, religious
bigotry and occasional violence.  Protestants of course will remember
things quite differently.  They will remember Catholic persecution of
dissenters in Europe, the entanglements of the Roman Church and state
power, and papal suspicion of democracy and religious liberty. 

We can’t erase those memories. And we cannot – nor should we try to
– paper over the issues that still divide us as believers in terms of
doctrine, authority and our understandings of the Church.  Ecumenism
based on good manners instead of truth is empty.  It’s also a form of
lying.  If we share a love of Jesus Christ and a familial bond in
baptism and God’s Word, then on a fundamental level, we’re brothers and
sisters.  Members of a family owe each other more than surface
courtesies.  We owe each other the kind of fraternal respect that
“speak[s] the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).  We also urgently owe
each other solidarity and support in dealing with a culture that
increasingly derides religious faith in general, and the Christian
faith in particular.  And that brings me to the heart of what I want to
share with you.

Our theme tonight is the vocation of Christians in American public
life.  That’s a pretty broad canvas.  Broad enough that I wrote a book
about it.  Tonight I want to focus in a special way on the role of
Christians in our country’s civic and political life.  The key to our
discussion will be that word “vocation.”  It comes from the Latin word vocare,
which means, “to call.”  Christians believe that God calls each of us
individually, and all of us as a believing community, to know, love and
serve him in our daily lives. 

But there’s more.  He also asks us to make disciples of all
nations.  That means we have a duty to preach Jesus Christ.  We have a
mandate to share his Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love.  These
are mission words; action words.  They’re not optional.  And
they have practical consequences for the way we think, speak, make
choices and live our lives, not just at home but in the public square. 
Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private.  And
we need to think about that simple fact in light of an anniversary. 

Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy,
the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston
Ministerial Association.  He had one purpose.  He needed to convince
300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a
Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief
executive.  Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and
went on to be elected.  And his speech left a lasting mark on American
politics.  It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.  Not
wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American
history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our
nation’s life.  And he wasn’t merely “wrong.”  His Houston remarks
profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious
believers, in America’s public life and political conversation.  Today,
half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

Now those are strong statements.  So I’ll try to explain them by
doing three things.  First, I want to look at the problems in what
Kennedy actually said.  Second, I want to reflect on what a proper
Christian approach to politics and public service might look like.  And
last, I want to examine where Kennedy’s speech has led us – in other
words, the realities we face today, and what Christians need to do
about those realities.

John Kennedy was a great speaker.  Ted Sorensen, who helped craft
the Houston speech, was a gifted writer.  As a result, it’s easy to
speed-read Kennedy’s Houston remarks as a passionate appeal for
tolerance.  But the text has at least two big flaws.2   The first is political and historical.  The second is religious.

Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: “I believe in an America where
the separation of Church and state is absolute.”  Given the distrust
historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were
shrewdly chosen.  The trouble is, the Constitution doesn’t say that. 
The Founders and Framers didn’t believe that.  And the history of the
United States contradicts that.  Unlike revolutionary leaders in
Europe, the American Founders looked quite favorably on religion.  Many
were believers themselves.  In fact, one of the main reasons for
writing the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – the clause that
bars any federally-endorsed Church – was that several of the
Constitution’s Framers wanted to protect the publicly funded Protestant Churches they already had in
their own states.  John Adams actually preferred a “mild and equitable
establishment of religion” and helped draft that into the 1780
Massachusetts Constitution.3

America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and
government.  Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic
like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive.  Religious
faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.  Thus, the modern, drastic
sense of the “separation of Church and state” had little force in
American consciousness until Justice Hugo Black excavated it from a
private letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury
Baptist Association.4   Justice Black then used Jefferson’s phrase in the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947.

The date of that Court decision is important, because America’s
Catholic bishops wrote a wonderful pastoral letter one year later – in
1948 – called “The Christian in Action.”  It’s worth reading.  In that
letter, the bishops did two things.  They strongly endorsed American
democracy and religious freedom.  They also strongly challenged Justice
Black’s logic in Everson. 

The bishops wrote that “It would be an utter distortion of American
history and law” to force the nation’s public institutions into an
“indifference to religion and the exclusion of cooperation between
religion and government . . .”  They rejected Justice Black’s harsh new
sense of the separation of Church and state as a “shibboleth of
doctrinaire secularism.”5   And the bishops argued their case from the facts of American history.

The value of remembering that pastoral statement tonight is this: 
Kennedy referenced the 1948 bishops’ letter in his Houston comments. 
He wanted to prove the deep Catholic support for American democracy. 
And rightly so.  But he neglected to mention that the same
bishops, in the same letter, repudiated the new and radical kind of
separation doctrine he was preaching.

The Houston remarks also created a religious problem.  To
his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as President should “ever
require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I
would resign the office.”  He also warned that he would not “disavow my
views or my church in order to win this election.”  But in its effect,
the Houston speech did exactly that.  It began the project of walling
religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive
way.  It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public
duties.  And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside
religious pressures or dictates.” 

For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on
personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring.  But what
Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa,
was something quite alien and new.  He “‘secularize[d]’ the American
presidency in order to win it.”  In other words,  “[P]recisely because
Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity
that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of
[American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to
‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially
his own – in order to win that office.”6

In Massa’s view, the kind of secularity pushed by the Houston speech
“represented a near total privatization of religious belief – so much a
privatization that religious observers from both sides of the
Catholic/Protestant fence commented on its remarkable atheistic
implications for public life and discourse.”  And the irony — again as
told by Massa — is that some of the same people who worried publicly
about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one
they expected.  In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself
went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public
square by privatizing personal belief.  The very effort to ‘safeguard’
the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . .
contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”

Fifty years after Kennedy’s Houston speech, we have more Catholics
in national public office than ever before.  But I wonder if we’ve ever
had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith
informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.  The life of our
country is no more “Catholic” or “Christian” than it was 100 years
ago.  In fact it’s arguably less so.  And at least one of the reasons
for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions
with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it
were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to
become a public nuisance.  And too many just don’t really believe. 
Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles.  But I hope you’ll forgive
me if I say, “I doubt it.”

John Kennedy didn’t create the trends in American life that I’ve
described.  But at least for Catholics, his Houston speech clearly fed
them.  Which brings me to the second point of my talk:  What would a proper Christian
approach to politics look like?  John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit
scholar who spoke so forcefully about the dignity of American democracy
and religious freedom, once wrote: “The Holy Spirit does not descend
into the City of Man in the form of a dove.  He comes only in the
endlessly energetic spirit of justice and love that dwells in the man
of the City, the layman.”7

Here’s what that means.  Christianity is not mainly – or
even significantly — about politics.  It’s about living and sharing
the love of God.  And Christian political engagement, when it happens,
is never mainly the task of the clergy.  That work belongs to
lay believers who live most intensely in the world.  Christian faith is
not a set of ethics or doctrines.  It’s not a group of theories about
social and economic justice.  All these things have their place.  All
of them can be important.  But a Christian life begins in a
relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice,
mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and
first commandment.  And a second is like it.  You shall love your
neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and
the prophets” (Mt 22:37-40).  That’s the test of our faith, and without
a passion for Jesus Christ in our hearts that reshapes our lives,
Christianity is just a word game and a legend.  Relationships have consequences. 
A married man will commit himself to certain actions and behaviors, no
matter what the cost, out of the love he bears for his wife.  Our
relationship with God is the same.  We need to live and prove our love
by our actions, not just in our personal and family lives, but also in
the public square.  Therefore Christians individually and the Church as
a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God. 
Human law teaches and forms as well as regulates; and human politics is
the exercise of power – which means both have moral implications that
the Christian cannot ignore and still remain faithful to his vocation
as a light to the world (Mt 5:14-16).

Robert Dodaro, the Augustinian priest and scholar, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago called Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine.  In his book and elsewhere, Dodaro makes four key points about Augustine’s view of Christianity and politics.8  

First, Augustine never really offers a political theory, and there’s
a reason.  He doesn’t believe human beings can know or create perfect
justice in this world.  Our judgment is always flawed by our
sinfulness.  Therefore, the right starting point for any Christian
politics is humility, modesty and a very sober realism.  Second, no
political order, no matter how seemingly good, can ever constitute a
just society.  Errors in moral judgment can’t be avoided.  These errors
also grow exponentially in their complexity as they move from lower to
higher levels of society and governance.  Therefore the Christian needs
to be loyal to her nation and obedient to its legitimate rulers.  But
she also needs to cultivate a critical vigilance about both.  Third,
despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in
public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their
faith brings them into conflict with public authority.  We can’t simply
ignore or withdraw from civic affairs.  The reason is simple.  The
classic civic virtues named by Cicero – prudence, justice, fortitude
and temperance – can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all
citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. 
Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public
office is an honorable Christian vocation.  Fourth, in governing as
best they can, while conforming their lives and their judgment to the
content of the Gospel, Christian leaders in public life can accomplish real good, and they can make
a difference.  Their success will always be limited and mixed.  It will
never be ideal.  But with the help of God they can improve the moral
quality of society, which makes the effort invaluable.

What Augustine believes about Christian leaders, we can reasonably
extend to the vocation of all Christian citizens.  The skills of the
Christian citizen are finally very simple: a zeal for Jesus Christ and
his Church; a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and
the believing community; the prudence to see which issues in public
life are vital and foundational to human dignity, and which ones are
not; and the courage to work for what’s right.  We don’t cultivate
these skills alone.  We develop them together as Christians, in prayer,
on our knees, in the presence of Jesus Christ – and also in discussions
like tonight.

Now before ending, I want to turn briefly to the third point I
mentioned earlier in my talk:  the realities we face today, and what
Christians need to do about them.  As I was preparing these comments
for tonight, I listed all the urgent issues that demand our attention
as believers: abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the
elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national
confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on
marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing
disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection;
the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care
debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children. 

The list is long.  I believe abortion is the foundational human
rights issue of our lifetime.  We need to do everything we can to
support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of
unborn children.  We may want to remember that the Romans had a visceral hatred
for Carthage not because Carthage was a commercial rival, or because
its people had a different language and customs.  The Romans hated
Carthage above all because its people sacrificed their infants to
Ba’al.  For the Romans, who themselves were a hard people, that was a
unique kind of wickedness and barbarism.  As a nation, we might
profitably ask ourselves whom and what we’ve really been worshipping in
our 40 million “legal” abortions since 1973.

All of these issues that I’ve listed above divide our country and
our Churches in a way Augustine would have found quite understandable. 
The City of God and the City of Man overlap in this world.  Only God
knows who finally belongs to which.  But in the meantime, in seeking to
live the Gospel we claim to believe, we find friends and brothers in
unforeseen places, unlikely places; and when that happens, even a
foreign place can seem like one’s home.

The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a
Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific
label.  John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes
to the Father but by me” – which is so key to the identity of Houston
Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of
every Catholic who truly understands his faith.  Our job is to love
God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify
the world as his agents.  To do that work, we need to be one.  Not
“one” in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one,
in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended.  This is what Jesus
meant when he said, “I do not pray for these only, but also those who
believe in me through their word, that they may all be one;
even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in
us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn17:20-21).

We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws —
deeply shaped by Christian faith.  It can be so again.  But we will do
that together, or we won’t do it at all.  We need to remember the words
of St. Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt. “They are one, who are wholly for each other.”9   May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ – so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.

Charles J. Chaput is the Catholic Archbishop of Denver. Reproduced with permission.  


1. Paul Johnson, “An Almost-Chosen People,” First Things, June/July 2006; adapted from his Erasmus Lecture

2. Full text of the Kennedy Houston speech is available online from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

3. John Witte, Jr., “From Establishment to Freedom of Public
Religion,” Emory University School of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory
Research Paper Series, Research Paper No. 04-1, 2003, p. 5

4. Ibid., p. 2-3

5. U.S. Catholic bishops, pastoral letter, “The Christian in Action,” No. 11, 1948; see also Nos. 12-18; reprinted in Pastoral Letters of the American Hierarchy, 1792-1970, Hugh J. Nolan, editor, Our Sunday Visitor, 1971

6. Mark Massa, S.J.; quotations from Massa are from “A Catholic for
President?  John F. Kennedy and the ‘Secular’ Theology of the Houston
Speech, 1960,” Journal of Church and State, Spring 1997

7. John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Role of Faith in the Renovation
of the World,” 1948; Murray’s works are available online from the
Woodstock Theological Center Library

8. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A.; see private correspondence with speaker, along with Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (first published in 2004), and “Ecclesia and Res Publica: How Augustinian Are Neo-Augustinian Politics?,”  collected in Augustine and Post-Modern Thought: A New Alliance Against Modernity?, Peeters, editor, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium , 2009

9. Referenced in Murray, “The Construction of a Christian Culture;”
essay originally delivered as three talks in 1940, available online as
noted above.

Charles J. Chaput OFM Cap. is the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia. He previously served as Archbishop of Denver. A member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, he is the second Native American...