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John F. Kennedy was the nation's 35th and youngest president. He was assassinated in office in 1963. Kennedy was a powerful speaker on American ideals and civil liberties, including religious liberty contained in the First Amendment. (Oval Office photo, public domain)

John F. Kennedy (1917-1962) was the youngest man ever elected to the U.S. presidency.


Born in Massachusetts to a father who had served as an ambassador to Great Britain, Kennedy earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, served as a lieutenant in charge of a torpedo boat in World War II, and entered politics by being elected to the House of Representatives from his state of birth. 


After subsequently serving in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election of 1960. The campaign had featured the first televised television debates. Kennedy served as president from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. 


Kennedy worked to allay concerns about his Catholicism


Prior to Kennedy, no Roman Catholic had ever been elected to the presidential office, and many Protestants questioned whether a Catholic would be independent of control by the Vatican.


 Kennedy succeeded in meeting such concerns in a speech that he gave on Sept. 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Noting that he thought the threat of communist influence was of far greater importance than his own religious views, Kennedy indicated he believed strongly that the establishment clause of the First Amendment called for strict separation of church and state. He thus observed that: 


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 Catholic) how to act, and No Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and 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.


Kennedy continued:


I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible than an act against one church is treated as an act against all.


Kennedy specifically cited the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty and the prohibition against religious tests in Article VI of the Constitution. He further assured the audience that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”


He ended by noting that if elected president, he would take the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” 


In perhaps a further attempt to link his own aspirations to those of American Protestant forbears, in his farewell address to his Massachusetts constituents on Jan. 9, 1961, Kennedy noted that, in shaping his administration, he had been “guided by the standard John Winthrop [a Pilgrim leader] had set before his shipmates” when he said that “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.” 


Kennedy was a powerful speaker on American ideals


Kennedy was a powerful speaker. In his presidential inaugural address, Kennedy emphasized that America was founded on “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hands of God.” Proclaiming that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy, who had run for office on the false premise that there was a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, announced that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”


In one of his most famous utterances, Kennedy urged individuals to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  


As president, Kennedy faced an early embarrassment when Cubans, supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, failed in an attempted invasion (hatched during the Eisenhower Administration) at the Bay of Pigs to free that nation from the control of Fidel Castro, who had allied himself with the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union subsequently began placing nuclear missiles in that island nation, Kennedy blockaded the island. The Soviets backed down in what may have been the closest that the world has ever come to nuclear war.


Kennedy continued U.S. participation in the War in Vietnam that his successor would increase. Scholars continue to debate whether Kennedy would have pursued similar policies. Kennedy helped create both the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, and he inspired the nation to land a man on the moon and return him to Earth — an event that did not happen until the Nixon Administration.


Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was more successful in pushing through his civil rights agenda after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. 


Court rules on school prayer during Kennedy's presidency


Early in his administration, in Scales v. United States (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a man under the Smith Act of 1940 for being a member of the Communist Party, but Kennedy commuted the remainder of Scales’ six-year sentence on Christmas Eve of 1962.


Kennedy generally had good rapport with the press. He was good at self-deprecating humor, engaged in good repartee with reporters during televised press conferences, and, although he refused to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner until it invited women, was well received there after it did so.


In an address to members of the press on April 27, 1961, Kennedy cautioned journalists that they had a responsibility not to endanger national security by publishing information during times of crisis that might aid the enemy. Noting that he had “no intention of establishing a new Office of War information to govern the flow of news,” or “new forms of censorship or new types of security classifications” he did ask “members of the newspaper and the industry in this country to reexamine their own responsibilities — to consider the degree and the nature of the present danger — and to heed the duty of self-restraint which the danger imposes upon us all.” 


One of the most controversial decisions of Kennedy’s presidency occurred with the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale (1962). The court ruled that a prayer written by the New York State Board of Regents to say prior to meals violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.


 Asked for his reaction in a news conference on July 27, 1962, Kennedy said that he had not had time to examine the language of proposed constitutional amendments to overturn the decision but indicated that in the meantime he would support the decision. In contrast to many strident criticisms of that decision, Kennedy further observed that there was an easy remedy: “We can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all our children.” 


In answer to another question, Kennedy indicated that he did not think that the issue of federal aid to religious colleges and universities was on the same level with prohibitions on such aid that the court had imposed on elementary and public schools, where attendance was compulsory.


Kennedy made the controversial decision to appoint his brother Robert Kennedy, who had served previously as an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, as his attorney general, and, together, they made some progress on civil rights, upon which President Johnson would build.


Kennedy appointed White, Goldberg to Supreme Court


In 2020, Joe Biden became the second Roman Catholic to become a U.S. president, but, perhaps largely because of Kennedy’s presidency, religion was not a significant issue in the campaign. 


Kennedy inspired many young people to consider lives of public service. As president, Kennedy appointed Byron White, a long-time friend who had served as his deputy attorney general, to the Supreme Court after Charles Whittaker retired. He nominated Arthur Goldberg, his Secretary of Labor, after Felix Frankfurter retired.


Kennedy appointed Archibald Cox (who would later be appointed as a special prosecutor in the Nixon Watergate investigation) as his Solicitor General. He also elevated Thurgood Marshall, whom Johnson would later appoint to the Supreme Court, as a judge on the U.S. Second Court of Appeals. 


Robert Kennedy went on to become a U.S. senator but was assassinated after winning the Democrat primary in California when running for the Democrat nomination for president in 1968. Brother Teddy Kennedy went on to a distinguished career as a Massachusetts senator, leading opposition to President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Teddy Kennedy divided his party with his unsuccessful attempt to capture the 1980 Democrat nomination from Jimmy Carter.


John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 16, 2024.

 

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