James Noland : Sarah Palin and JFK’s Houston Speech

John F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president of the United States, speaks before a group of Protestant ministers at Houston’s Rice Hotel, September 12, 1960. Photo from AP.

Palin wrong about JFK:
Kennedy’s famous speech on church and state

As the clergyman primarily responsible for inviting Kennedy to speak before Houston ministers, I take issue with Ms. Palin.

By James Noland / The Rag Blog / January 6, 2011

I need to set the record straight. In her new book, America by Heart, Sarah Palin discusses John Kennedy’s speech before the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston on September 12, 1960.

Palin admits that the speech was given before she was born, but she claims to have studied it and has some serious issues with Kennedy. In her critique, she takes his address out of context and distorts what he said.

Palin puts Kennedy down while elevating Mitt Romney. She writes that Kennedy’s speech “was irrelevant to the kind of country we are.” While praising Mormon Romney, she attacks Catholic Kennedy by saying his speech “did not resolve the issue” and “dodged the crucial question.”

The crucial question to Palin was Kennedy’s embrace of what nearly every Protestant clergyman holds dear — namely, that the church is a separate and independent institution from any form of government.

Palin believes that Kennedy made a fundamental error when he affirmed: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute.”

As the clergyman primarily responsible for inviting Kennedy to speak before Houston ministers, I take issue with Ms. Palin. She does not seem to realize that in 1960 Kennedy was burdened by what was known as “the Catholic problem.” Many ministers in Houston and throughout the United States agreed with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, when he charged:

Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake. It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interest.

He went on to say that the election of a Catholic might even end free speech in America.

To me this argument was appalling and personally offensive. To eliminate any candidate from running for President because of his or her religious beliefs is a violation of the constitutional guarantee that there shall be no religious test for public office.

I am a graduate of Yale Divinity School and a Methodist minister. In 1960 I was the head of an interchurch agency charged with promoting Protestant ecumenism in Houston, Texas, and I felt bold steps needed to be taken to confront the growing bitterness among my fellow clergymen.

Luckily, I was able to persuade the Ministerial Association to ask both Kennedy and his opponent, Richard Nixon, to speak before the ministers of this area. Nixon declined but Kennedy accepted.

On the evening of the meeting, clergymen filled the Rice Hotel Ballroom. Many were vehemently opposed to this Roman Catholic. Some said that, if elected, Kennedy would move the Pope from Rome and install him in the White House. At the very least, they felt that Kennedy’s religion would affect his decision making.

Kennedy began by outlining critical issues facing his campaign:

…the spread of Communist influence… hungry children… in West Virginia… old people who cannot pay their doctors bills… 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… war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.

Next he argued:

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.

Palin recoils at Kennedy’s “repeated objection to governmental assistance to religious schools.” What is the alternative to the absolute separation of church and state? Does she want church schools to be granted public funds? She makes it clear that this is her preference and she seems eager to blur the demarcation between the federal government and organized religion.

Contrary to Palin’s critique, the speech I heard did not dodge the issues that Kennedy had to confront to be the first and only Roman Catholic to be elected President of the United States since the country started in 1789. Every minister present wanted to hear Kennedy acknowledge that he believed in a complete and unqualified partition between the national government and religious institutions.

Palin unfavorably compares Kennedy to Romney. She writes that Kennedy was “defensive” and “seemed to want to run away from religion.” Then she praises Romney for saying: “Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

The truth is that Kennedy was on the offensive. He had to take a strong stand on the position that religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights.

Erecting the wall of separation between church and state, to Kennedy, was absolutely essential in a free society. “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Roman Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”

Palin feels that Romney was “relevant” when he exclaimed that religious liberty is “fundamental to America’s greatness,” while Kennedy “assured voters that your faith will have nothing to do with your presidency.”

Palin is disappointed that Kennedy did not “tell the country how his faith had enriched him.” Rather, he dismissed it as “a private matter.”

Those who doubt the wisdom of Kennedy’s decision to keep his religious faith private should remember that he was not a Pharisee, whom Christ censured. I applaud the fact that Thomas Jefferson attacked those “fallible and uninspired men (who) have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible…”

Why did Sarah Palin condemn John Kennedy? Is she trying to position herself to make a run for the presidency with Romney as her partner?

Would Palin disagree with Kennedy when he advocated:

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man… has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice… where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews… will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division… and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

How effective was Kennedy’s speech? To answer this question, l refer you to Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, who was manager of Kennedy’s political campaign and later became director of the anti-poverty program known as the Office of Economic Opportunity.

After the election I was invited to the White House and given the red carpet treatment. Then the executive assistant with whom I visited sent me in a limousine to see Sargent Shriver, who was waiting for me when I arrived and proclaimed:

Mr. Noland, I personally want to thank you for what you did to organize the Houston ministers meeting. Jack and I feel that this was the turning point in our campaign. It was a very rough session and the auditorium was dripping with fear, prejudice, and sheer disdain for Roman Catholics.

“Those in attendance seemed to be unaware that the meeting was being televised and being shown simultaneously all over the United States. Also, we videotaped the entire program and selectively showed it again and again in heavily Roman Catholic areas and this helped to galvanize Catholics’ commitment to go to the polls. This carried the day for us. Thank you!

In summary, I am glad to have had a minor role in helping John F. Kennedy to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I especially appreciate his defense of the separation of church and state. He did not forget Jefferson’s maxim: “The price for freedom is eternal vigilance.”

In addition, Thomas Jefferson cautioned against those who fallaciously judge the religious sentiments of others “only as they square or differ from his own…” This certainly seems to be the case with Ms. Palin.

[James Noland worked with Federal Judge Woodrow Seals and the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston to bring presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to Houston to speak before the South Texas Protestant clergymen, where JFK gave his famous speech on the separation of church and state. Noland later taught at Rice University, the University of Houston, and St. Thomas University, and served as Assistant to the Mayor of Houston.]

Rare video of John F.Kennedy’s speech in Houston, Sept. 12, 1960

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to James Noland : Sarah Palin and JFK’s Houston Speech

  1. T.G. Fisher says:

    Why would anyone with more brains than your average door knob care what Sarah “the Tundra Tinker Bell” Palin says about anything?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Because she’s had an apparently powerful influence on middle America ?

  3. the democrats says:

    run sarah, run!

  4. Gilleez says:

    We thought Ronald Reagan was too far out for the American people, so be careful wishing for Sarah Palin as the Republican. All it took was Teddy Kennedy every day for a year speaking to large audiences with the word that “Jimmy Carter is the clone of Ronald Reagan”, for people to lose their fear of him and vote for him for his ability to “Act like a President”.

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