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How JFK changed religion in America

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, Richard Cardinal Cushing (L), addresses visitors during visit by President John F. Kennedy (C) and Jacqueline Kennedy (R) to the Pontifical North American College (also known as American College of the Roman Catholic Church of the United States) in Rome, Italy (Credit: White House/The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Cecil W Stoughton)

One of the biggest news stories of 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy.  Conspiracy theories still abound; 75 percent of Americans do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating the president.  Books from Edward Jay Epstein’s 1966 Inquest to Larry Sabato’s new The Kennedy Half-Century have examined his death and its implications.  Others will follow in the weeks to come.

The media will focus on Kennedy’s face-off with the Soviet Union in Cuba, his remarkable eloquence, and his enduring political significance.  One area that will likely receive less attention is his enormous relevance to our religious self-understanding.

Kennedy was only the second Catholic candidate for president (after New York’s Governor Alfred E. Smith in 1928).  From the beginning of the campaign, his Catholic commitment was a hotly-debated subject.  The Southern Baptist Convention made clear its opposition to a Catholic president.  Norman Vincent Peale opposed his candidacy on religious grounds; Billy Graham made no secret of his support for Richard Nixon.

In response, Kennedy insisted: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President.  I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic.”  Opposition persisted, including a gathering of 150 Protestant ministers in September 1960 which declared that Kennedy could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings.  The candidate knew he needed to do something to defuse this issue, so he accepted an invitation by the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to address their group on September 12.

That speech became pivotal to his election.  In it he declared: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”  He would make decisions on issues such as birth control and divorce “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”

God is not a hobby by Jim DenisonKennedy continued to claim that religion is personal while politics are public.  This bifurcation allayed the fears of the voting public.  And it has left a lasting effect on religion in America.  Fifty years later, the gap between Sunday and Monday, the spiritual and the secular, religion and the “real world” continues to grow.

However, such ideological pragmatism is inconsistent with nearly every religious worldview today.  Jews are to obey the Law in private and in public (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).  Islamic sharia applies to every dimension of life.  Christianity is intended to be a full-time commitment to Christ as King (Matthew 6:33).

If personal faith does not influence a president’s public decisions, how real is it?  By that measure, how real will your faith be today?