Protestants in particular had questioned whether Kennedy would be able to act independently of his church — the same question posed more recently, if less vociferously, to Mitt Romney, a member of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during his two failed presidential bids.
Kennedy first listed the core issues at the heart of the 1960 election: communism’s spread, war, hunger, despair, poverty, aging, access to health care and the country’s failure to keep up in the space race. Those issues, he conceded, had been overshadowed by questions about his faith and now forced him 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 Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,” Kennedy said. “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.”
He believed, Kennedy said, in an America where there was no religious intolerance.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he said. “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.”
Mitt’s moment • Romney echoed those words in 2007, when he delivered a speech on faith at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. Romney directly invoked Kennedy, “another candidate from Massachusetts.”
“Like him, I am an American running for president,” Romney said. “I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”
Five years later, the former governor of Massachusetts became the first Mormon to head a major party ticket. When he picked U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, to be his running mate, reported USA Today, the two formed the first Republican ticket without a Protestant in more than 150 years.