A Three Religion Country?

A Three Religion Country?In 1955, Will Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew. He argued that America had become a “three religion country,” where religious commitments matter more than ethnic ones, and that, despite irreconcilable religious differences, Americans together form a kind of American “common religion.” It also seemed as if the U.S. were no longer a distinctly Protestant nation after the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, Herberg’s theory was thoroughly challenged in the following decades for his insufficient attention to segregation in Protestant churches, the presence of Eastern Orthodoxy and African American Islam, and the proliferation of multitudinous complex identities complicating a simple tripartite system.

In 1955, the sociologist Will Herberg published a book with the simple title Protestant, Catholic, Jew. In it he articulated a new status quo for America, arguing that “America is a three religion country”—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. “The newcomer,” he wrote, “is expected to change many things about him as he becomes an American—nationality, language, culture. One thing, however, he is not expected to change—and that is religion.” In the prosperous suburbanization of the post-war years, these three were the principal religious groups in the United States. In light of the strong anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish rhetoric of the past, the 1950s seemed to signal that both communities had become sufficiently “assimilated” to have a permanent place in America’s public self-definition.

Herberg argued that after thirty years of sharply reduced immigration, the “cultural pluralism” described by Horace Kallen was not at all the reality of American life. “Religious pluralism” had replaced ethnicity and culture as the “differentiating element” in American life. According to Herberg, the Jews who moved to the suburbs in great numbers after World War II no longer described themselves to their neighbors as Russian or German Jews, but simply as Jews. The Catholics who earlier would have identified themselves as Irish or Italian were now simply Catholics. The Swedish Lutherans, German Lutherans, and English Methodists thought of themselves as Protestants. By the third generation, he insisted, people did not establish their social location in terms of ethnicity, but more generally by the religious community with which they identified.

Herberg drew upon a study by sociologist Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy demonstrating that in New Haven, Connecticut, the Germans, Irish, Poles, Scandinavians and Italians increasingly married outside their ethnic group, but still inside their religious group. In the third generation, Catholics still tended to marry Catholics, but not necessarily Italian Catholics or Polish Catholics. Jews tended to marry Jews, but not necessarily from the same ethnic background. The Protestants, Catholics, and Jews comprised “the three ‘pools’ or ‘melting pots’ in and through which the American people is emerging as a national entity after a century of mass immigration.” Thus, the phrase “triple melting pot” was coined.

In the 1950s, religious identification was on the upswing: 95% of Americans polled perceived themselves and identified themselves as “religious,” with 68% Protestant, 23% Catholic, and 4% Jewish. Church membership was growing. Hundreds of larger, more visible synagogues were built in the suburbs, replacing the small urban synagogues of first and second generation immigrants. Faith, whether it be Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, was understood to be fundamental. In 1954 the term “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. As President Eisenhower put it: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”

Herberg also argued that Americans also have a “common religion,” stronger than any religious differences, that of the “American Way of Life”—a set of ideas, rites, and symbols that defines the civil society and supplies an “overarching sense of unity.” This “common religion” includes, above all, democracy; in economic terms, free enterprise; in social terms, egalitarianism and individualism; in spiritual terms, idealism and a strong moralistic impulse. The Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, a wholly Americanized Christmas, and Memorial Day comprises its ritual calendar. In the 1960s, the sociologist Robert Bellah further explored this American “civil religion.”

For Herberg, pluralism was not simply a fact, but “an essential part of the American Way of Life, and therefore an aspect of religious belief.” Americans, he purported, take for granted the fact of religious difference. Whether Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, Americans “tend to think of their church as a denomination existing side by side with other denominations in a pluralistic harmony that is felt to be somehow the texture of American life.”

In the late 1950s John Courtney Murray, a prominent Catholic, was also writing about the pluralist “project” that is America. He emphasized not only the right to be different from a religious or cultural standpoint, but also the responsibility to be engaged in the common enterprise of the nation. “By pluralism” he wrote, “I mean the coexistence within one political community of groups that hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions—those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man in a universe that stands under the reign of God.” The vigorous engagement of people of different religious beliefs around the “common table” of discussion and debate is at the heart of a democratic, pluralist society. Catholics could and should participate in that vigorous discussion. Murray’s book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960) is a major contribution to the understanding of a pluralist society.

Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew came at a time when the complete dominance of Protestants in American public life was nearing its end. In 1957, the U.S. government reported that of the 528 members of the 85th Congress, there were 416 Protestants, 95 Roman Catholics, 12 Jews and one Sikh. Though Protestants were still in the vast majority, for many there was the disturbing realization that, as Herberg put it, “Protestantism is no longer identical with America.” The election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president in 1960 marked the full-fledged entry of Catholics into the public sphere. Kennedy’s administration included prominent Jewish cabinet members, such as Abraham Ribicoff and Arthur Goldberg.

During the 1960s, it became clear that the “triple melting pot” was too simple a view of America. Herberg had considered only in passing the fact that African American Protestants were not part of the Protestant “melting pot,” and that Sunday morning remained the most segregated time of the week. He had skimmed over the Eastern Orthodox history and presence on the American scene, and had overlooked the rise of black Islam. As religious scholar Martin Marty noted in his introduction to the 1983 edition of the book, Herberg had not foreseen the revival of the “identity” issues that would be so pronounced within a few years. Marty writes: “A decade after he published, America had broken into a complex of identity-giving collectivities: Orthodox, black Protestant, multiethnic Catholic conflict groups, Jewish ‘sectarianism,’ feminist and generational causes and movements, Indian and Hispanic power fronts, Eastern ‘cults.’ Even Protestantism was drastically sundered by an unforeseen recovery of fundamentalism-evangelical-pentecostalism over against a dwindling ‘mainline’ in which Herberg has placed so much stock.”

Just a decade after the publication of Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed, launching a new phase of immigration that would make American ethnicity and religion more textured and more complicated than Herberg had ever imagined, with the growth of substantial Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh communities.

Additional Content

Protestant-Catholic-Jew, Will Herberg, 1959

Will Herberg taught at Drew University during the 1950s. His Protestant-Catholic-Jew (excerpted here) has become a classic in its interpretation of America in the 1950s. Herberg’s articulation of the “triple melting pot,” of “The American Way of Life,” and of the role of religion in claiming an American identity provide a starting point for discussion in thinking about a more complex religious America in the 1990s.

The three religious communities—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—are America. Together, they embrace almost the entire population of this country. In the scheme of things, defined by the American Way of Life, they constitute the three faces of American religion, the three “pools” or “melting pots” in and through which the American people is emerging as a national entity after a century of mass immigration. (211)

The outstanding feature of the religious situation in American today is the pervasiveness of religious self-identification along the tripartite scheme of Protestant, Catholic, Jew. From the “land of immigrants,” America has, as we have seen, become the “triple melting pot,” restructured in three great communities with religious labels, defining three great “communions” or “faiths.” This transformation has been greatly furthered by what may be called the dialectic of “third generation interest”: the third generation, coming into its own with the cessation of mass immigration, tries to recover its “heritage,” so as to give itself some sort of “name” or context of self-identification and social location, in the larger society. “What the son wishes to forget”—so runs “Hansen’s Law”—“the grandson wishes to remember.” But what he can “remember” is obviously not his grandfather’s foreign language, or even his grandfather’s foreign culture; it is rather his grandfather’s religion—America does not demand of him the abandonment of the ancestral religion as it does of the ancestral language and culture. This religion he now “remembers” in a form suitably “Americanized,” and yet in a curious way also “retraditionalized.” Within this comprehensive framework of basic sociological change operate those inner factors making for a “return to religion” which so many observers have noted in recent years…

[B]eing a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew is understood as the specific way, and increasingly perhaps the only way, of being an American and locating oneself in American society. It is something that does not in itself necessarily imply actual affiliation with a particular church, participation in religious activities, or even the affirmation of any definite creed or belief; it implies merely identification and social location. A convinced atheist, or an eccentric American who adopts Buddhism or Yoga, may identify himself to himself and find his stance in life in terms of his anti-religious ideology or exotic cult, although it is more than likely that a Yankee turned Buddhist would still be regarded as a “Protestant,” albeit admittedly a queer one. But such people are few and far between in this country and are not even remotely significant in determining the American’s understanding of himself. By and large, to be an American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew, because all other forms of self-identification and social location are either (like regional background) peripheral and obsolescent, or else (like ethnic diversity) subsumed under the broader head of  religious community.

…What is this American Way of Life that we have said constitutes the “common religion” of American society?… If the American Way of Life had to be defined in one word, “democracy” would undoubtedly be the word, but democracy in a peculiarly American sense. On its political side it means the Constitution; on its economic side, “free enterprise”; on its social side, an equalitarianism which is not only compatible with but indeed actually implies vigorous economic competition and high mobility. Spiritually, the American Way of Life is best expressed in a certain kind of “idealism” which has come to be recognized as characteristically American. It is a faith that has its symbols and its rituals, its holidays and its liturgy, its saints and its sancta, and it is a faith that every American, to the degree that he is an American, knows and understands. (79)

…Americans believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do. It may indeed be said that the primary religious affirmation of the American people, in harmony with the American Way of Life, is that religion is a “good thing,” a supremely “good thing,” for the individual and the community. And “religion” here means not so much any particular religion, but religion as such, religion-in-general. “Our government makes no sense,” President Eisenhower recently declared, “unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” In saying this, the President was saying something that almost any American could understand and approve, but which must seem like a deplorable heresy to the European churchman. Every American could understand, first, that Mr. Eisenhower’s apparent indifferentism (“and I don’t care what it is”) was not indifferentism at all, but the expression of the conviction that at bottom the “three great faiths” were really “saying the same thing” in affirming the “spiritual ideals” and “moral values” of the American Way of Life.

…It must be remembered that in America the variety and multiplicity of churches did not, as in Europe, come with the breakdown of a single established national church; in America, taking the nation as a whole, the variety and multiplicity of churches was almost the original condition and coeval with the emergence of the new society. In America religious pluralism is thus not merely a historical and political fact; it is, in the mind of the American, the primordial condition of things, an essential aspect of the American Way of Life, and therefore in itself an aspect of religious belief. Americans, in other words, believe that the plurality of religious groups is a proper and legitimate condition. However much he may be attached to his own church, however dimly he may regard the beliefs and practices of other churches, the American tends to feel rather strongly that total religious uniformity, even with his own church benefiting thereby, would be something undesirable and wrong, scarcely conceivable. Pluralism of religions and churches is something quite axiomatic to the American. This feeling, more than anything else, is the foundation of the American doctrine of the “separation of church and state,” for it is the heart of this doctrine that the government may not do anything that implies the pre-eminence or superior legitimacy of one church over another. (84-85)

This means that outside the Old World distinction of church and sect America has given birth to a new type of religious structure—the denomination. The denomination as we know it is a stable, settled church, enjoying a legitimate and recognized place in a larger aggregate of churches, each recognizing the proper status of the others.

[From Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay on American Religious Sociology (New York: Anchor Books), 1960. Permission granted by Professor Donald G. Jones, executor of the estate of Will Herberg]

Pluralism, National Menace, 1951

This editorial (excerpted here) by the editors of The Christian Century expresses the fear that “pluralism” was a term used to disguise the division that Catholics would cause to U.S. society if they gained too much influence.

The threat of a plural society based on race or language having been overcome, it might have been expected that American worries on this score were at an end. Most Americans assume that to be the case. There is, however, another basis upon which plural societies have developed in other parts of the world:  religion. The United States escaped this danger in other days because the leaders of its three major faiths were for the most part devoted to the American ideal and tradition. Certainly there were some who were not enthusiastic supporters of that ideal and tradition, but they were a negligible minority. Now the situation is changed. Roman Catholics are no longer a small minority of the population and the number of their leaders who would like to alter certain of the basic concepts upon which American democracy is founded has grown from a small group to include most of the clergy and many laymen.

While this development has its indigenous aspects, it is largely a result of a change in emphasis and policy on the world level in that church. Priests educated in Rome have returned to tell their parishioners that the American ideal of the separation of church and state, particularly as it relates to public education, is a mistake; that it takes away rights which properly belong to the church and secularizes the whole educational process. As a result of this new emphasis and the propaganda among Roman Catholics which has accompanied it, the United States is faced with the menace of a plural society based on religious differences.

…The real hope that American society will remain united lies in straightforward, uncompromising resistance to any efforts by any group to subvert the traditional American way of life. In this resistance Americans of all faiths—and in this we include Roman Catholics who have not been aware of the ends to which the policy of the hierarchy is directed—need to join hands, and at once.

[The Christian Century, 13 June 1951: 701-703. © 1951 Christian Century Foundation. Used by permission of the Christian Century Foundation.]

We Hold These Truths

John Courtney Murray was an American Catholic theologian who wrote extensively on theology and public life. This influential book (excerpted here) was first published in 1960. During the subsequent years, Murray was an active participant in the Second Vatican Council in Rome and its most prominent interpreter to Catholics in America. Murray argues that the “truths” declared in the Declaration of Independence, truths of human freedom and equality, constitute a heritage and a public philosophy that needs to be constantly renewed and reaffirmed through public dialogue. The “American Proposition” was not finished with the adoption of the Constitution, but must be continually worked out for America’s civil society to remain healthy. The experience of religious pluralism in America makes the achievement of a civil society all the more challenging and all the more important. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and secularists all have to be engaged in this common project. As a Catholic, Murray addresses himself especially to Catholic participation in the dialogue.

Neither as a doctrine nor as a project is the American Proposition a finished thing. Its demonstration is never done once for all; and the Proposition itself requires development on penalty of decadence… The American Proposition makes a particular claim upon the reflective attention of the Catholic in so far as it contains a doctrine and a project in the matter of the “pluralist society,” as we seem to have agreed to call it. The term might have many meanings.

By pluralism here I mean the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions—those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stand under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within a community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here. If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity. (x)

…Barbarism likewise threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories… When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialogue.

All this has been said in order to give some meaning to the immediate question before us, whether American society, which calls itself free, is genuinely civil. In any circumstances it has always been difficult to achieve civility in the sense explained. A group of men locked together in argument is a rare spectacle. But within the great sprawling City that is the United States the achievement of a civil society encounters a special difficulty—what is called religious pluralism… Civil discourse would be hard enough if among us there prevailed conditions of religious unity; even in such conditions civic unity would be a complicated and laborious achievement. As it is, efforts at civil discourse plunge us into the twofold experience of the religiously pluralist society.

The first experience is intellectual. As we discourse on public affairs… we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality—into metaphysics, ethics, theology. This movement does not carry us into disagreement; for disagreement is not an easy thing to reach. Rather, we move into confusion. Among us there is a plurality of universes of discourse. These universes are incommensurable. And when they clash, the issue of agreement or disagreement tends to become irrelevant. The immediate situation is simply one of confusion. One does not know what the other is talking about… We have no common universe of discourse. In particular, diverse mental equivalents attach to all the words in which the constitutional consensus must finally be discussed—truth, freedom, justice, prudence, order, law, authority, power, knowledge, certainty, unity, peace, virtue, morality, religion, God, and perhaps even man.

…The second experience is even more profound. The themes touched upon in any discussion of Religion and the Free Society have all had a long history. And in the course of discussing them we are again made aware that only in a limited sense have we severally had the same history. We more or less share the short segment of history known as America. But all of us have had longer histories, spiritual and intellectual. These histories may indeed touch at certain points. But I, for instance, am conscious that I do not share the histories that lie behind many of my fellow citizens. The Jew does not share the Catholic history, nor even the Christian idea of history. Catholic and Protestant history may be parallel in a limited sense but they are not coincident or coeval. And the secularist is a latecomer. He may locate his ancestry in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. [Even secularism] must situate itself with regard to the Christian tradition. It must include denials and disassociations that the secularism of antiquity did not have to make; and it also includes the affirmation of certain Christian values that antiquity could not have affirmed.

The fact of our discrepant histories creates the second experience of the pluralist society. We are aware that we not only hold different views but have become different kinds of men as we have lived our several histories. Our styles of thought and of interior life are as discrepant as our histories.

…The fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity, as you will—is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it. And when you do, you catch a glimpse of the factual reality of the pluralist society. I agree with Prof. Eric Voegelin’s thesis that our pluralist society has received its structure through wars and that the wars are still going on beneath a fragile surface of more or less forced urbanity.

…To each group, of course, its influence seems salvific; to other groups it may seem merely imperialist. In any case, the forces at work are not simply intellectual; they are also passionate. There is not simply an exchange of arguments but of verbal blows. You do not have to probe deeply beneath the surface of civic amity to uncover the structure of passion and war.

There is the ancient resentment of the Jew, who has for centuries been dependent for his existence on the good will, often not forthcoming, of a Christian community. Now in America, where he has acquired social power, his distrust of the Christian community leads him to align himself with the secularizing forces whose dominance, he thinks, will afford him a security he has never known. Again, there is the profound distrust between Catholic and Protestant. Their respective conceptions of Christianity are only analogous; that is, they are partly the same and totally different… The Catholic regards Protestantism not only as a heresy in the order of religion but also as a corrosive solvent in the order of civilization, whose intentions lead to chaos. The Protestant regards Catholicism not only as idolatry in the order of religion but as an instrument of tyranny in the order of civilization, whose intentions lead to clericalism.

…There is, finally, the secularist… The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, “The Integrity of the Political Order.” In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the City) all the “divisive forces” of religion. At least in America he has traditionally had no quarrel with religion as a “purely private matter,” as a sort of essence or idea or ambient aura that may help to warm the hidden heart of solitary man. He may even concede a place to religion in-general, whatever that is. What alarms him is religion as a Thing, visible, corporate, organized, a community of thought that presumes to sit superior to, and in judgment on, the “community of democratic thought,” and that is furnished somehow with an armature of power to makes its thought and judgment publicly prevail.

…We face a crisis that is new in history. We would do well to face it with a new cleanliness of imagination, in the realization that internecine strife, beyond some inevitable human measure, is a luxury we can no longer afford. Serious issues confront us on all three levels of public argument. Perhaps the time has come when we should endeavor to dissolve the structure of war that underlies the pluralistic society, and erect the more civilized structure of the dialogue. It would be no less sharply pluralistic, but rather more so, since the real pluralism would be clarified out of their present confusion. And amid the pluralism a unity would be discernible—the unity of an orderly conversation. The pattern would not be that of ignorant armies clashing by night but of informed men locked together in argument in the full light of a new dialectical day. Thus we might present to the “candid world” the spectacle of civil society.

[From John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward), 1988, x, 19-20,24.]

Address of Senator JFK to the Greater Houston Ministerial Assc.

Rice Hotel
Houston, Texas
September 12, 1960

In this speech, John F. Kennedy as a candidate for the Presidency in 1960 addresses directly the lingering suspicion that, as a Catholic, he is somehow subject in his public role to the Catholic Church.

Reverend Meza, Reverend Reck, I’m grateful for your generous invitation to speak my views.

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida—the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power—the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms—an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.

These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues—for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured—perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again—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—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end—where all men and all churches are treated as equal—where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice—where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind—and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe—a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so—and neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test—even by indirection—for it. If they disagree with that safeguard they should be out openly working to repeal it.

I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none—who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him—and whose fulfillment of his Presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

This is the kind of America I believe in—and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a “divided loyalty,” that we did “not believe in liberty,” or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the “freedoms for which our forefathers died.”

And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died—when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches—when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom—and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey—but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition—to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress—on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself)—instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic.

I do not consider these other quotations binding upon my public acts—why should you? But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion. And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their Presidency to Protestants and those which deny it to Catholics. And rather than cite the misdeeds of those who differ, I would cite the record of the Catholic Church in such nations as Ireland and France—and the independence of such statesmen as Adenauer and De Gaulle.

But let me stress again that these are my views—for contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come—and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible—when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith—nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.

If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

But if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the Presidency—practically identical, I might add, to the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability
preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution…so help me God.

[From the address of Senator John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Rice Hotel (Houston, Texas), 12 September 1960. Audio available online via National Public Radio.]