Washington Fifty years ago Sunday John Kennedy gave one of the best political speeches I ever heard, a plea for religious tolerance that has strange pertinence today when a little-known minister has been threatening to burn a Quran to strike a blow against Muslims.
The notion of using the anniversary of Sept. 11 to condemn the religion of those who attacked the World Trade Center has been criticized by President Obama and by leaders of every other faith.
That it found a home anywhere in this land suggests the persistence of the prejudice that was the subject of Kennedy’s talk — an evening that remains as vivid in my memory as any from the first presidential campaign I covered.
Kennedy had been working his way around the battleground states outside the East, starting on Labor Day in Michigan and then down the West Coast from Seattle and Portland through the Central Valley of California to Los Angeles, then east to Phoenix and into Texas.
The reception had been satisfactory, but the reports reaching the campaign were disquieting. Back east, Norman Vincent Peale, the Protestant minister and best-selling author whose following rivaled Billy Graham’s, had formed an alliance of other church leaders who were raising hostile questions of the young Roman Catholic candidate. Across the South, and in many other rural areas, Protestants weren’t waiting for answers before signaling that Kennedy was unacceptable as an occupant of the White House.
There was nothing covert about the campaign. The National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, Peale’s group, addressed an open letter to the candidate: “Is it reasonable to assume that a Roman Catholic president would be able to withstand altogether the determined efforts of the hierarchy of his church to gain further funds and favors for its schools and institutions and otherwise breach the wall of separation of church and state?”
As we traveled, word spread that Kennedy had decided to take the issue head-on, rather than let it fester and doom him to follow Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for president, to defeat. So Kennedy had accepted an invitation to appear before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association for a televised speech and question-and-answer session on Sept. 12.
Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, started working on the formal remarks and, as he told Theodore White, the campaign chronicler, did so with the belief that the hour ahead could determine the election.
The ministers, in their Sunday best, were seated in the ballroom of the Rice Hotel when Kennedy arrived. He made a point of walking up through the assembly by himself — one man facing whatever was about to come.
In words that have often been quoted as defining the American tradition of religious liberty, Kennedy uttered two crisp paragraphs, beginning, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” and concluding “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Then came the rhetoric, including the reminder that “side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes, and McCafferty, and Bailey, and Badillo, and Carey, but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test” at the Alamo.
In the question period, Kennedy sported a look of bemused puzzlement as the ministers quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia, his body language conveying that this trip was outside his normal world. But he never lost his cool, and he assured them he found none of the questioning “unfair or unreasonable.” He left to applause.
At the end, Peter Lisagor of The Chicago Daily News turned to a knot of other reporters and said, “If the editors of this country were smart, they’d pull every reporter covering Kennedy tonight off him for the rest of the campaign. You can’t have watched this and still say you’re neutral.”
I thought he was right.