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Monday, November 22, 2010

Sarah Palin and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech on religion

Advance notices of Sarah Palin’s new book America By Heart report that she takes issue with John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. About Palin’s new book the Associated Press reports:
Palin writes that when she was growing up, she was taught that JFK’s speech reconciled religion and public service without compromising either. But since she's revisited the speech as an adult, she says, she's realized that Kennedy "essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are."
In the same AP report, historian Ted Widmer, editor of The Library of America’s American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, expresses surprise at Palin’s remarks:
It's putting a negative spin on what was interpreted at the time as a sensible and uplifting message . . . JFK was trying to protect his own right to be a Catholic and to run for president.
In A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that with this speech Kennedy “knocked religion out of the campaign as an intellectually respectable issue.” Kennedy affirmed, “I am a Catholic,” and sought to reassure voters what that meant:
I believe in an America where the separate of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act. . . 
In her book, Palin is also said to have praised Romney’s approach (not “doing a JFK”) during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he delivered his own speech on religion. At the time, Garry Wills analyzed how Mitt Romney’s speech differed from JFK’s:
Kennedy had to convince people that he would not let the Vatican push him around. Romney has let evangelicals know that he would let them push him around. He not only has given them a theological formula on Jesus which he hopes they will accept—he implicitly has attacked Kennedy’s absolute separation of church and state using the evangelicals’ own slogan: those who think (like Kennedy) that “religion is seen merely as a private affair” are, Romney said, “intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” That phrase has not been much noticed in public comments on Romney’s speech, but it is a key statement for the evangelicals.
With her attack on Kennedy and identification with Romney, Palin seems to be expanding on her earlier statement in April rejecting the idea that “God should be separated from the state.”

The debate over the concept of “the separation of church and state” goes back more than 200 years, when Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase famous today, in a letter sent on New Year’s Day 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association discussing the First Amendment, “that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Of related interest: Watch a video of John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech

Related LOA works: American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Kennedy’s Houston speech); Thomas Jefferson: Writings


  1. "Her book"..."Palin writes"...surely you know better. That attention-hungry dolt is incapable of forming and/or writing a sentence. An earnest little brown-shirt functionary does her writing for her...and her tweeting as well. What a miserable day today. The name "Palin" infested my Library of America sanctuary.

    Where's Mark Twain when you need him?

  2. I agree ... I'm disappointed. Library of America is a nice escape for me. Now, here's current, annoying politics. I'm not saying whether I agree with Palin, this article or, even, Kennedy or Romney. I just wish this article hadn't been waiting for me when I visited today.


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