JOHN F. KENNEDY
Speech to the Greater
Houston Ministerial Association
September 12, 1960
I am grateful for your generous invitation to state my
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and
properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize
from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical
issues in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence,
until it now festers only ninety 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's 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
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 barrier.
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 a 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 led 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 apart 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 to 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,
both the lay and the 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 be neither humbled by making it
the instrument of any religious group, nor tarnished by
arbitrarily withholding it, its occupancy from the members
of any religious group. I believe in a President whose
views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed
upon him by the nation nor 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 Vl of the Constitution
by requiring a religious test- even by indirection-for
if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly
working to repeal it.
I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible
to all and obligated to none-who can attend any ceremony,
service or dinner his office may appropriately require
him to fulfill-and whose fulfillment of his Presidential
office 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 of America
I fought for in the South Pacific and the kind my brother
died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might
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 did die when they fled here to escape religious
test oaths, that denied office to members of less favored
churches, when they fought for the Constitutions the Bill
of Rights, 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 Fuentes and
McCafferty and Bailey and Bedillio and Carey-but no one
knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was
no religious test there.
I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition, to judge
me on the basis of fourteen years in the 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 attended myself)-and
instead of doing this do not judge me on the basis of these
pamphlets and publications we have all seen that carefully
select quotations out of context from the statements of
Catholic Church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently
in other centuries, and rarely relevant to any situation
here- and always omitting, of course, that statement of
the American bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state
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 prosecute the free exercise of any
other religion. And that goes for any persecution at any
time, by anyone, in any country .
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 also cite the
record of the Catholic Church in such nations as France
and Ireland-and the independence of such statesmen as de
Gaulle and Adenauer.
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, if I should
be elected- 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 in the national interest, and without regard
to outside religious pressure or dictate. 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 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 other conscientious public servant would
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 tried my best and was fairly judged.
But if this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000
Americans lost their chance of being President on the day
they were baptized, that 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 this election, I shall devote every
effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the
Presidency-practically identical, I might add, with the
oath I have taken for fourteen years in the Congress.
For, without reservation, I can, and I quote "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