A friend pointed me to this recent address by Denver Archbishop Chaput on religion and public life. He approaches the subject by way of a thoughtful critique of a landmark speech by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to a group of Protestant ministers fifty years ago—a speech designed to allay fears about Kennedy’s Catholicism influencing his politics.
To his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as President should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.” But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside religious pressures or dictates.”
For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring. But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new. He “‘secularize[d]’ the American presidency in order to win it.” In other words, “[P]recisely because Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of [American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to ‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially his own – in order to win that office.”
The archbishop, again following Massa, points out that the secularization that followed as a consequence of Kennedy’s stress on separation of church and state is partly the fault of Protestant resistance to Catholics in public office.
[S]ome of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected. In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public square by privatizing personal belief. The very effort to ‘safeguard’ the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . . contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”
Then he shifts to the remedy: A renewal of Christian action in public life—action grounded not on a theory or program, but on the personal influence of (mostly) laymen living lives rooted in a personal relationship with Christ.
Christian faith is not a set of ethics or doctrines. It’s not a group of theories about social and economic justice. All these things have their place. All of them can be important. But a Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.