JFK's ‘live and let live’ legacy

Even “pass the salt” would have been out of place when I went to dinner in my college dining hall on Nov. 22, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was total silence. Shock and grief hung over everything.

The suddenness and awfulness of his death contributed to this reaction. So did the brilliance that the president and his wife had brought to the White House, and the trust that he could withstand Russian aggression, as he did with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that he had an idea of how to achieve great things for the country in the future, like his sponsorship of space exploration.

Before each national election, Our Sunday Visitor once polled readers as to their choices. In 1960, OSV editors decided not to reveal the results because they so stunningly favored Kennedy. Nobody doubted the poll’s accuracy. They feared that the results would convince American Protestants that Catholics actually were plotting to seize the government, and that would hurt Kennedy’s chances. God forbid!

His now-famous speech in Houston on church-state relations in part was directed to Catholics. Kennedy did not write the Houston speech. The task was left to his speechwriters, led by longtime Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen. In his own autobiography, Sorensen disclosed Kennedy’s hopes and requirements for the speech. He rightly believed that he could never calm all Protestant worries about a Catholic in the White House, but Kennedy also thought that he could win over less bigoted Protestants.

So in Houston, addressing Protestants nervous about a Catholic president being under the thumbs of Rome and of bishops, he insisted that he did not speak for the Church, and that the Church did not speak for him. He pledged to ignore any Church official’s order or direction relating to government policy were he president. It indeed convinced some, maybe many, Protestants.

Forgotten about the speech is how Kennedy carefully reinforced his identity with the Catholic religion — as most American Catholics saw their religion. References to “the” Church were changed to “my” Church. He called himself “a Catholic.” He said, “I will not disavow my Church.”

He promised to resign the presidency if his beliefs ever collided with what he considered to be the national interests. Finally, he ordered speechwriters to consult recognized Catholic theologians. He wanted no Catholic challenges.

Importantly, no bishop, academic or Catholic publication, including Our Sunday Visitor, even whispered disagreement with Kennedy. None wished to be accused of meddling in politics. This reluctance to comment one way or the other demonstrated how ingrained among American Catholics was the philosophy Kennedy expressed in Houston. “Live and let live.” “We take our religion from Rome but our politics from home.” Catholics historically saw this view, probably with good cause, as the only way to survive. Catholic Alfred E. Smith said much the same in his 1928 presidential race.

After Houston, Kennedy’s campaign bombarded heavily Catholic, but not Protestant, media markets with replays of the talk. He wanted Catholics to know exactly what he had said. It worked. Smelling prejudice, Catholics circled the wagons. They swarmed to the Kennedy candidacy. Our Sunday Visitor’s poll, taken after Houston, indicated how well his strategy succeeded among Catholics.

Many American Catholics, including politicians, still say “live and let live.” Should Catholic principles guide a Catholic’s politics, or business, or any behavior aside from the strictly personal? Should the Church play a role? Think about it. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.