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The Great Lie About John F. Kennedy, The Bishops, And The American Catholic Church

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“The Catholic Church benefited enormously from the JFK presidency,” pollster Larry Sabato wrote Monday morning. “Prejudice against Catholics declined and millions were exposed to church rituals. Church leaders welcomed the ‘JFK effect.’”

“Now at last there is a second Catholic [president],” he continued, “and what do some in the hierarchy do? They ruin it.”

“A little more than 60 years [after President John F. Kennedy’s speech], a second Catholic president sits in the White House,” Washington Post columnist Katherine Tumulty wrote Sunday, “and the church’s American bishops appear to have forgotten what it took for one of their own to get there.”

It’s a common take; I remember hearing it from my history teacher in high school. Often compared with then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2007 speech on race relations in America, the basic Kennedy story says that his speech on religious tolerance was a great step for Catholics in America, a death knell for the anti-Catholic bigotry then rampant in the country, and marked a new age for Catholic politicians in national politics. It’s a very nice story; too bad it isn’t true.

The problems with this civics fairy tale are it is completely ignorant of the contents of the speech, is built on an elite view of Catholicism in politics, and is bankrupt of any serious religious-minded analysis. In short, as with so many things in American political education, it is a great secular myth.

In the speech, delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in front of hundreds of Protestant ministers, many of whom were deeply suspicious or openly hostile to a “Papist” in the White House, the young Massachusetts senator made a series of serious promises that would appease, or at least defuse, the anti-Catholics — at the great cost of crippling the moral authority of the Catholic Church in America for decades to come.

First, Kennedy promised that no man of God would advise — or even to seek to advise — his presidency, saying he believes “in an America… where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National

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