On Sept. 12, 1960, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to Protestant ministers in Houston that is regarded as a turning point not just in that year's election but in the decline of anti-Catholicism in the United States. "I believe," Kennedy said, "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."
Last week, a prominent Roman Catholic prelate, also addressing a Protestant audience in Houston, said that Kennedy's speech was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong." Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, a leader of the church's conservative wing, complained that Kennedy had "profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics but of all religious believers in America's public life. . . . Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage." The archbishop chided contemporary Catholic politicians for following Kennedy's lead in living their faith "as if it were a private idiosyncrasy -- the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance."
Chaput isn't alone in faulting Kennedy for seeming to imply that a political leader's faith has no connection to his public life. But Kennedy's main intention was to assure Protestants suspicious of Catholicism that he would make decisions "in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."