Saturday, April 9


In Theordore H. White's The Making of the President 1960, White describes how John F. Kennedy and his campaign decided to "meet the religious issue head on" in the West Virginia primary against Hubert Humphrey. John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was a high hurdle that had to be cleared in securing the Democratic Party's nomination for president and it had to be surmounted all over again if the White House was to be won. Those of us who lived then and remember that election -- particularly those of us who were and remain Catholic -- knew that such victories would turn on the ability of JFK to disabuse the American electorate of the fear that the pope in Rome would be calling the shots for President Kennedy in the White House.

As White described the situation facing John Kennedy just three weeks before the West Virginia primary of May 10th and following a voter sampling in the heavily populated Kanawha county:

When Kennedy headquarters inquired of their West Virginia advisers what had happened between his 70-to-30 margin in December and the short end of the 40-to-60 split, they were told curtly, "But no one in West Virginia knew you were a Catholic in December. Now they know."
Kennedy went on to win in West Virginia, to secure his party's nomination at its Los Angeles' convention, and to win the presidency; but many to this day believe the turning point to have been JFK's victory in the televised national debates against Richard Nixon. Maybe so, but for many political analysts and historians the seminal moment of that presidential election may have come in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1960, when JFK made his remarks on "church and state" to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, confronting the nagging issue of his Catholicism less than two months before the general election. Among those remarks:

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote ... where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Now roll the film forward 45 years later to Air Force One, April of 2005, and to an onboard press conference with the President of the United States, George W. Bush. The president is returning to the United States from just having attended the funeral services for Pope John Paul II -- from having been the first president in American history to have attended a papal funeral. What was said on that plane by the president would have been incomprehensible in 1960, had a pope died then during the heat of the campaign. Indeed, had a pope died then, neither President Dwight Eisenhower, candidate John Kennedy, nor candidate (and then Vice President) Richard Nixon would have given thought to attending a funeral Mass, nor, had any impolitically done so, baring his soul to the press, as George W. Bush felt comfortable doing (a man sublimely unwilling to mask his spiritual convictions).

According to Associated Press reporter Tom Raum's story, published in the "Denver Post," the following was said on that plane:

President Bush today said that attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II was "one of the highlights of my presidency" and made clear that he disagrees with former President Clinton's earlier assessment that the pontiff leaves a "mixed legacy."

"I think John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace, compassion and a strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone," Bush told reporters on Air Force One as he flew from Rome to the United States just hours after the funeral.

He said he wanted to amend his remarks to add the word "excellent."

"It was a strong legacy," the president said. "I wanted to make sure there was a proper adjective to the legacy he left behind, not just the word clear."

Bush spoke with reporters in the conference room of his plane.

"I'm really glad I came," he said. "There was never any question I would come."

Bush talked about his time in Rome in extraordinarily personal terms, saying it strengthened his own belief in a "living God."

He remarked on how affected he was by the services, particularly the music and the sight of the plain casket being carried out with the sun pouring down on it.

As he viewed the pope's body, Bush said, he felt "very much at peace" and "much more in touch with his spirit."

"I knew the ceremony today would be majestic but I didn't realize how moved I would be by the service itself," the president said. "Today's ceremony, I bet you, was a reaffirmation for millions."

Is it simply that the times have changed or more that a remarkable man has come into our midst who is so unerringly in touch with his spirituality and so irrevocably convinced that rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's is impossible to do well and to do rightly without the divine Hand of Providence for guidance, that he distinguishes clearly between that which is transcendant and that which is commonplace?

A self-evident truth of transcendant value lay in that simple cypress coffin before the world yesterday. A man who has been called simple by his detractors saw that truth, was a witness to it, and had reaffirmed what has been a guiding principle for him throughout his presidency -- namely, that secular governments cannot exempt themselves from nature's law or nature's God, nor long endure if they do.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character - on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people. Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before - ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now" - they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, "It rang as if it meant something." In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength - tested, but not weary - we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.

May God bless you, and may He watch over the United States of America.