John F. Kennedy’s September 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association was less than 15 minutes long, but it was grist for two hours of debate and discussion at the Pope Auditorium on the Lincoln Center campus on Wednesday evening.
“Religion and the Race for the Presidency: The Kennedy Moment,” a headline forum sponsored by the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture, featured four distinguished scholars of religion and politics who parsed the meaning of Kennedy’s speech, in which he addressed concerns about his loyalties as the nation’s first Catholic president.
Although the political scene was very different in 1960 than it is now, the panel agreed that the issue of how much religious faith should be a part of the job of president of the United States is very much alive in the current presidential race.
“Credit it or decry it, religion seems to be doing a lot of things, but disappearing doesn’t seem to be one of them,” moderator Peter Quinn said in his opening remarks.
The panel agreed that the question that JFK had to refute — Would his faith unduly influence his decisions? — has become practically passé. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, for example, took the opposite tact, saying in a recent speech that his faith would be the bedrock of the morality guiding his decisions. Panelist J. Bryan Hehir, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery professor of the practice of religion and public life at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University said that today voters are more interested in leaders’ personal faith.
“Kennedy’s argument, however you interpret it, was that religious choice is private,” he said. “Today people demand some explicit articulation of a relationship of a person’s personal conviction and their public stances. Whether you like Romney’s speech or not, that’s what he tried to do.”