John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
The First Catholic President
Like Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy attended church regularly while president and used religious rhetoric extensively in his speeches, especially in discussing his campaign for world peace. Eisenhower, however, provided strong governmental support for the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereas Kennedy maintained a much stricter separation between church and state. The Democrat’s vitality, idealism, powerful rhetoric, and charisma inspired many younger Americans to social activism. Kennedy’s faith is difficult to analyze. As the nation’s only Catholic president, whose religious affiliation was a major issue in the 1960 election, he is central to an examination of religion and the presidency. Moreover, his assassination and funeral evoked a torrent of religious language, analysis, and emotion and reinforced the importance of civil religion in American society. On the other hand, his faith had much less influence on his thinking and policies than that of the other presidents analyzed in this book. In addition, beneath his exuberant, commanding public persona were private vices that contradicted his Catholic faith. Given Kennedy’s pragmatic style of governing, perspective toward Catholicism, and lack of a coherent philosophy, there does not seem to be much relationship between his policies and his faith. Nevertheless, he did present moral rationales for his stances on numerous issues, including education, juvenile delinquency, women’s rights, world hunger, poverty, and the Alliance for Progress. To assess Kennedy’s approach, three issues are examined: the Peace Corps, civil rights, and the limited test ban treaty. The most intense religious controversy during Kennedy’s tenure was provoked by the 1962 Supreme Court case that ruled that school-sponsored prayers as part of a regularly scheduled devotional exercise violated the Constitution.
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