Is Sarah Palin Wrong About Jack Kennedy?

Kennedy’s niece certainly thinks so:

Palin fails to understand the genius of our nation. The United States is one of the most vibrant religious countries on Earth precisely because of its religious freedom. When power and faith are entwined, faith loses. Power tends to obfuscate, corrupt and focus on temporal rather than eternal purposes.

Somehow Palin misses this. Perhaps she didn’t read the full Houston speech; she certainly doesn’t know it by heart. Or she may be appealing to a religious right that really seeks secular power. I don’t know.

I am certain, however, that no American political leader should cavalierly – or out of political calculation – dismiss the hard-won ideal of religious freedom that is among our country’s greatest gifts to the world. As John F. Kennedy said in Houston, that is the “kind of America I believe in.”

I think the core of the problem here is that the United States facing Sarah Palin–and us–is different from Jack Kennedy’s.  He faced a very different challenge from Palin’s, and his response was tailored to the situation.

Kennedy’s U.S. wasn’t a state with an official religion or an official church, but one where the social value of religious beliefs were valued.  Those two had gone together from the beginning.  Palin has overlooked the fact that, in Kennedy’s day, it was unnecessary for an American politician to make the case for holding religious beliefs, publicly or privately.   Kennedy’s problem was that, in a Protestant country, it was a widely accepted idea that Catholic authoritarianism would obligate Kennedy to take orders from the Vatican, something Protestants found distasteful in the extreme.  (Freemasons, syncretistic though they were, had the same opinion).  Kennedy’s task–aptly done in Houston–was to set people’s minds at ease on that, and he was largely successful.

One thing that most Protestants don’t understand about Roman Catholics is that, for a church that ostensibly demands perfect conformity with the teaching of the church, they can be willing to ignore the teachings of the church when the occasion calls for it.  Kathleen Kennedy Townsend brings up her family’s differences with the church, but relative to the 1960 election most of those were after the fact–and after, I might add, Vatican II.

Today both secular left and religious right routinely set forth the proposition that you are what you believe and that you should be judged based on that.  Secular leftists routinely opine that people with any religious beliefs are incapable (or unworthy) of living in a technologically and scientifically advanced society, let alone hold public office, a proposition that came out in my “back and forth” with astrophysicist Saul Adelman.  On the right we have a theonomistic view where law and government–and the people who run them–must be in conformity to a very specific idea, or they too are out of the game.

It’s hard to see how a “free society” can endure such opinions having wide currency, and in that respect Townsend’s critique has merit.  But Sarah Palin, as was the case with Jack Kennedy, has to play with the cards she’s been dealt.  Until the secular left and religious right come to some modus vivendi in this country, the only way to play this game is for keeps.

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