JFK’s ‘Speech on Faith’ — The conscience: False dichotomy (part II)

By Fr. Gerald Goodrum, S.T.L.

Part II (continued from yesterday)

Perhaps the most notorious and oft-quoted example of Senator Kennedy’s miscomprehension of a well-formed conscience and the proper disposition of a person of faith from his “Ministerial Association Speech” is the following statement: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, [nor] imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.” In stating that it is neither the right of the president nor of the United States to dictate which religion if any to practice, he is correct and in line with the Constitution.

However, he sets up once again another false dichotomy and this time between “private” and “public” regarding the most important issue in the universe: namely, one’s faith or lack of faith in God.

JFK’s formulation is part of the contemporary wellspring of the “split-personality complex” manifested when a politician who is Christian professes to be “personally or privately opposed but publicly for” some gravely immoral issue. Religion as merely a private affair means that one’s religious faith has no practical sway on one’s thoughts, behaviors, or actions. It means that religion does not teach nor does it shape one’s character or inform one’s decisions.

Therefore, according to JFK, in a reference that is thinly-cloaked defiance against the threat of Catholic censure or even the rarely used excommunication, neither God, the Bible, nor Christian religious leaders (or any other religious leaders for that matter) have any actual authority: “I believe in an America . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” Here, his rhetoric suggests that he is accountable to no moral authority, neither that on earth nor that in heaven.

While he is correct in that, in America, religion is not to be imposed upon the state, he is mistaken to advocate that for individual Catholics their professed religious views should not influence their decisions.

Taking the position of JFK from another angle, it is valid to ask about the opposite non-neutral views of belief in a Judeo-Christian God and an accompanying biblical morality, namely agnosticism, atheism, nihilism, hedonism, an extreme secularism, etc. Should these be the only views permitted to influence and permeate directly or indirectly the general populace and public officials as is currently the case?

According to Kennedy and so many politicians who have subsequently followed some of his bone-chilling anti-religious rhetoric in his “Speech on Faith,” the answer is an obvious “yes.” JFK would have us taught that people are to exist in pristine vacuums untouched by systems of belief. The truth is, however, that since the time of childhood, each person is formed for good or for ill by the opinions and attitudes reflective of his or her parents, relatives, friends, peer group, social status, year of birth, language, ethnicity, religion, education, location, abilities, experiences, etc.—or the lack of some or most of these things. We all have belief systems and some are more coherent and better than others; it is part of being human.

Thus, it is not to be denied that one’s belief or disbelief in God sets the horizons of one’s concepts of the nature of humanity, freedom, government, and laws. Hence, the need for the proper and religious formation of conscience. There is, consequently, no pristine vacuum from which to come or from which to go.

Religion and faith matter. It makes a difference whether one’s conscience is formed by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth or by those of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) (Sanger was a famous American eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood)—indeed, it is a matter of life or death.

Fr. Gerald Goodrum, S.T.L. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. He holds a licentiate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) and a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), where he is currently a doctoral student. The article above has been adapted from his recently published book American Politics and Catholic Christianity: Issues of Conscience and Defined Moral Doctrine.

Reprinted with the permission of the Truth and Charity Forum.