JFK's Houston speech

Fifty years ago, on Sept. 12, 1960, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D.-Mass.), then the Democratic presidential candidate, addressed a group of Protestant ministers, mostly fundamentalists, in Houston. Historians say his remarks helped him win the Nov. 8 election. (Listen and read here.)

Today, some politicians who identify themselves as Catholics use the speech to validate their own practice of supporting public policies at odds with Catholic teaching. 

To win the presidency, where in 1928 Catholic Alfred E. Smith had failed, Kennedy planned to hold on to the Democrats’ “Solid South,” as the once-Confederacy was called. Outside Louisiana, Protestants dominated. Protestants worried that the pope would dictate to a Catholic president. 

Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists now come together on common ground because of abortion and other social issues. In 1960, circumstances were diametrically different. Fundamentalist Protestant opposition to Kennedy was vicious. Tens of thousands of ministers fervently preached against him. 

Kennedy knew that he would never win over confirmed anti-Catholic bigots, but he felt that he could sway more tolerant Protestants, who were in the majority in the United States. 

The other part of the plan, especially critical, was to rally Catholics in the big industrial states behind Kennedy. 

Kennedy’s chief speech-writer, Ted Sorensen, ultimately was responsible for writing the Houston speech, certainly subject to Kennedy’s review. 

A Unitarian, Sorensen knew his own limitations with Catholic theology. Therefore several respected American Catholics were consulted about the speech: Commonweal Editor John Cogley, Pittsburgh Bishop (later Cardinal) John J. Wright, and Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, regarded as an expert on church-state relations. 

Retired Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, of New Orleans, a Kennedy friend and adviser, recalls that the final draft was read over the phone to Bishop Wright and to Father Murray, and that, considering the tight deadline, they “both gave guarded thumbs-ups.” Kennedy’s self-confidence surely reflected the counsel he had been receiving from Bishop Wright. 

For Protestants, Kennedy said, “I do not speak for the Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me,” picking up a distinction given by Father Murray. 

For Catholics, he said in a number of places that he was a Catholic. He also said, “I will not disavow my Church,” and he pledged to resign if ever he had to choose between his personal conscience and his presidential duty. 

Despite vast media coverage, not one American Catholic bishop, prominent Catholic academic or major Catholic periodical, including Our Sunday Visitor, disputed his positions. 

(To be fair, Catholic leaders had decided to be silent about the election, lest they fuel charges of meddling in politics.) 

Quite frankly, his views reflected at least the mood of very many Catholic Americans. 

Actually, Catholics long before 1960 had convinced themselves of what they insisted to Protestants. Catholic doctrine was here, politics was there. In 1928, Smith had said things that seemed to set the stage for Kennedy. By 1960, Catholic intellectual discussion was embracing “personal conscience.” 

After Houston, Kennedy became the knight in shining armor for a huge majority of American Catholics. On Nov. 8, as he hoped, he won most of the South and a stunningly high number of Catholic votes. 

The legacy of the Houston speech is that the mind-set of so many Catholic Americans in 1960 still prevails among many today. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.