To those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, we know how identity group intolerance caused Americans to fight each other and how it divided our nation. We've been there - done that. We don't want a divided nation again. We remember the past, to provide context to those who want drag our nation back to the "bad old days."
Many people seem to only believe that it was a time of racial intolerance and division, and they seem to also forget that it was also the final days of a period of religious intolerance as well. In the 1920s, religious intolerance in America had reached a peak, as did the 4 million membership in the Ku Klux Klan organization. But in the decades to follow, religious intolerance started to reduce through the 1950s.
Until America faced another test in 1960.
Not unlike recent times, progress in respect for one another faced another challenge when a Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy decided to run for president. In 1960, to some people, the problem was that John Kennedy was a Catholic Christian. Half a century later, it may seem laughable that some would have questioned a person's "fitness" to be an American president because they were a Catholic Christian. But at the time, it was viewed by some as a real issue, and John Kennedy had to address this topic in his campaign.
In 1960, the question that some raised regarding John Kennedy was whether he could be a loyal American, while being a Catholic, or whether he would "led" by the Catholic Church in his decision-making as president. Of course, such claims were an insult to the identity of what America is - a nation that supports freedom of conscience for all - from the youngest child to the President of the United States. That is and always will be the America that I know and love.
John Kennedy addressed these concerns in a historic speech on September 12, 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. His words are as powerful and important today as they were half a century ago, and not just to America, but to the entire world.
John Kennedy addressed the challenge of those who would judge his effectiveness to lead the United States of America and be commander-in-chief - solely based on his religion. John Kennedy questioned what his religious identity had to do with "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms--an America with too many slums, with too few schools...," stating that these are "are not religious issues--for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers."
John Kennedy went on to address the campaign concerns over his religion: "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."
John Kennedy made it clear the type of America that he believed in: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," where no religious group would tell the president or public official how it must act, "and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."
John Kennedy stated "I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice"... "where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace".... and "where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
John Kennedy continued to say that while he would not "disavow either my views or my church" that he would act "in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates." John Kennedy concluded that he would do "the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution."
John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States of America in 1960. He was president, not just of the Christians, not just of the Catholic Christians, but of all Americans.
President John Kennedy was my president. I may have been too young to vote, but John Kennedy had a way to make us all know that he was the president for all of us - no matter how small, how large - we were all equal as Americans.
For a time in a difficult, divided America, THERE WAS HOPE.
My father and mother had a "mixed" religious marriage, by that era at least. My father was a Protestant Christian and my mother was raised as a Catholic Christian. My mother was a political worker, and was active in the John F. Kennedy campaign. I was just a small boy, but I went with her to the election polls, and was taught to say "vote for Kennedy," which I understand many found quite adorable. I wish I could remember but I was very young.
But I do remember Friday, November 22, 1963 - the day my president was murdered. There are some memories in life that are so painful, the sharpness is never dulled. When my president was murdered, he was mourned not just by some, but by people in the streets, in their homes, and across television. Those of you who read about it in the history books won't quite understand it. There was nothing else anyone talked about. There was just the murder of our beloved President Kennedy. There was a NATIONAL mourning. I don't think Americans who only understand the current generation can conceive of a national mourning or a national solidarity on anything. But in 1963, the United States was truly united in its grief over the death of President Kennedy.
On Saturday morning, our president's coffin was what that era's children had to wake up and see on television. Our parents cried and we children watched in stunned silence as the television broadcast our president's body as it was transported in his coffin from Dallas, Texas where he was gunned down back to our nation's capitol. I will never forget my president in his coffin, murdered.
After the national mourning, our nation got back to business. Our divisions grew and the nation fought among itself. The tragedy of violence did not end. We had to witness the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy among too many others. Medgar Evers was murdered less than 6 months before President Kennedy. For a while, America was degenerating into a nation whose politics of division had fallen into politics of violence and assassination. To those who lived such gut-wringing, heart-wrenching decades, surely we must never want to return to such a period of intolerance and division again.
But once again, in America, we find ourselves returning to an era of constant division and growing intolerance in America - both racial and religious intolerance.
In America today, there are religious extremists from different faiths that seek to declare a war on people of other faiths. Their religious intolerance is the exact opposite of what my president represented. We have seen a Muslim extremist seek to blow up a crowd at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, and in that same town, we have seen anti-Muslim extremists who have committed an arson attack on a Portland mosque. In the reports on that story, I have seen people who have publicly called for blowing up mosques in America, which is part of the continuing anti-Muslim hatred that we have seen grow in the United States from coast-to-coast with people calling for bombings, terrorist attacks, and denying freedom of religion and worship for Muslims in New York City, Tennessee, Florida, and California. It is a horrific disgrace to America and to Americans of every faith, belief, conscience, and identity group, and many, many Americans have been standing up to such hate, intolerance, and open calls of violence against Muslims and non-Muslims.
Yet more and more continue to publicly promote hate, intolerance, and violence against people of other faiths without fear of consequences. The Ku Klux Klan once were afraid of what their public embrace of hate would do to their name, their employers, and their lives, which is why they hid behind hoods, while they promoted their white supremacist, twisted view of "Christian Protestant" hatred against other religions, other Christian sects, and other races.
What my president understood is that religious intolerance could never be given official political support. This is a problem in American politics today. Leaders of American political parties cannot be perceived to be supporting, favoring, or condemning one religion or one religious sect over another. Leaders of Americans are not just leaders of a Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc., nation - they are leaders for ALL Americans - no matter what their faith (or lack thereof), no matter what their religion. America is a nation of the people and for the people - of all kinds.
As my president said in 1960, "this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died--when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches--when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom."
Our police officers, our firefighters, our public servants of all kinds do not protect, do not rescue, do not serve only Americans of one religious identity. Nor do we know the religion of those who serve. There is never a question. All Americans are equal - it is a fundamental basis for the definition of our nation.
There was a time in America when we often didn't know each other's religions, nor was it something people asked in a polite society. Certainly, many do and have the right to be evangelists and share their faiths, hope, and strength from their religion with others. Evangelism is a great inspiration and mission in the lives of many people. When I was a boy, I too passed out Bibles to others, and there are a number of evangelistic missionaries in my family. We can share our faith, while respecting the privacy and dignity of others.
But there is a difference between private evangelism and expecting our public government officials and leaders to perform religious evangelism or show religious preferences, while performing their public duties. There are some political leaders in America today who believe that if our government leaders are not using their positions to evangelize or to comment on other religions, then they are "running away" from their religion. There are political leaders in America today who believe that if you don't follow their form of religious beliefs and views than somehow you are "dodging" the issue of your religious responsibilities.
In her latest book, "America by Heart," politician Sarah Palin criticizes President Kennedy for what she views as his failures in these areas. On page 184 of her book, Sarah Palin criticizes President Kennedy's 1960 Houston speech, writing "As an adult I've revisited Kennedy's famous speech and have discovered that it is actually quite different from the way it is often described. Instead of reconciling his religious identity with his role in public life, Kennedy entirely separated the two." On page 185 of her book, she states that John Kennedy did not resolve the issue of whether one's religious faith controlled one's career in government, stating: "In any case, JFK's famous speech did not resolve the issue--perhaps because it dodged the crucial question--and it is still very much with us today." On page 186 of her book, she praises Republican Mitt Romney who aspired to become president in 2008 in contrast stating, "unlike Kennedy, he spoke out strongly for America's religious heritage, and how it continues to define us as a nation: [quoting him as stating] 'America faces a new generation of challenges. Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us... Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.'"
On page 187 of her book, she states that "The difference is striking: where Kennedy seemed to want to run away from religion, Mitt Romney forthrightly embraced it. The contrast is attributable not just to the political distance between the two men, but to the distance our country has come since 1960."
Indeed it has come a distance, but not always in a good way. In too many ways, our nation is going backwards, and we must find the courage of our convictions to right the ship of state.
Freedom requires courage - the courage to defend freedom not just for the majority, but also for the minority.
Sarah Palin never knew my president.
She was born after my president was buried, and she knows of him from books she has read.
I can tell Sarah Palin that my president didn't "dodge" the issue of his religious identity; he simply didn't make his religious identity the basis on why he should or should not do his job - just like millions and millions of Americans do every single day of their lives. Imagine choosing which employees are valuable, which businesses deserve business, which government and military individuals take what actions, all based on their individual religious beliefs. The idea is absurd, unworkable, and completely ridiculous. The idea would be seek to create something that is.... not America - certainly not the land of the free.
My president sought to be commander-in-chief, not evangelist-in-chief.
My president sought to lead us in a representative democracy, not a discriminatory theocracy.
My president sought to be president not just for some Americans, but for all Americans.
Sarah Palin, my president did not "dodge" anything or anyone - not his religious convictions, not the U.S.S.R.'s nuclear missiles, and not even an assassin's bullet - but most of all not his responsibilities as president to ALL Americans.
My president believed in America that much - that is why he literally gave his life to his nation.
Sarah Palin, you should know there was no bigger heart in all of America than my president's. There was a reason why the NATION mourned the death of President John F. Kennedy.
When I despair, I sometimes visit my president at Arlington National Cemetery. No one, not even my closest family members, knows this. I have never told anyone before.
I go there and stand by my president's grave and pray. I pray for guidance by God. I pray for guidance by my president's spirit to give me wisdom and courage. I still mourn his loss today, as our nation has mourned his loss for nearly 50 years. I wonder why such a great and wise man had to be taken from us, and those of us without his wisdom, without his heart, without his decency, and without his vision are left behind to struggle on. We needed my president so badly. But I believe God has a reason why these many years we had to find our way on our own. We have our own responsibilities.
In the pouring rain or the cold, the Eternal Flame by my president's grave continues to burn. It burns not just to remember him as my president, but always to remember him as OUR president.
I read the great words on the stone plaques by his grave. I settle on one that has his quote
"In the long history of the world, a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it."
My president - he gave his life to be Responsible for Equality and Liberty. Not just on the popular issues, but also on the unpopular issues, not just when it was easy, but also when it was hard, and not just when it was convenient, but also when it meant sacrifice - even his ultimate sacrifice.
To those who believe in freedom, whether you are American or any other nationality, I hope my president's sacrifice and courage is an example to you in your life, so that you too do not shirk from our shared responsibility for equality and liberty for us all.