28 August 2011

JFK’s speech on religion and politics

Religion played a huge role in the 1960 presidential election.

Specifically, Republicans questioned how John Kennedy would govern, given that he was a practicing Roman Catholic.   A group of 150 Protestant ministers and laymen publicly opposed the idea of a Roman Catholic president.  In a public statement, the group  -including Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale – stated that, among other things, they felt it "is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic President would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign relations.”

While the Republicans did not use the religion issue as part of the national campaign, the issue continued to dog Kennedy throughout the race.

A speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960, right,  proved to be Kennedy’s definitive statement on the subject.

The campaign used film of the speech in television advertising and ran it repeatedly throughout the fall of 1960, especially in areas where there was a heavy Roman catholic population.

In her definitive study of presidential advertising, Kathleen Hall Jamieson demonstrates that the Democrats used Kennedy’s speech both defensively and offensively.  They used it to rebut the Republican attacks and at the same time tried to motivate Roman Catholic voters.

National Public radio produced a transcript of the entire speech.  As Jamieson notes, some consider this to be Kennedy’s best speech. At the opening, Kennedy lists what he considers to be the real issues of the campaign.  

He then turns to a series of statements of his own views, that flow from this introduction:

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.

The structure of the speech -  a series of paragraphs starting with “I believe…” deliberately mimics the structure of any statement of faith.  Kennedy continues to recite the articles of his own political faith including the separation of church and state, that effective places his critics in the position of doing the very thing they attack Kennedy on. 

He finishes his statement of political faith with words every member of his audience would know:

But if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the presidency — practically identical, I might add, to the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can "solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, so help me God.

You can find the video of the speech on youtube:

JFK on religion and politics

These days, Kennedy’s campaign could not rely on broadcasting the speech in five minute and the full 10 minute airings as part of their ad campaign. 

This is a short speech.

The words are compelling and Kennedy delivers it reasonably well.

The subject was highly controversial in a way that few mi9ght appreciate these days.

But the audience has changed.

Modern audiences simply won’t sit still for a talking head that goes on about any subject for nearly 11 minutes.

They definitely would find Kennedy’s speech itself taxing.  The sentences are much longer than the short statements that modern audiences are used to hearing. While it suits the immediate audience, the speech demands that people be familiar with the subject and with a great deal of history, including more recent events at the time.

Still, there are quotable bits likely crafted to make them fit with a potential series of short spots:

These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

The first sentence doesn’t stand on its own, however. 

You’d have to hear the list of real issues to get the full effect.

While Kennedy runs them off effectively enough, the transcript would have great visual impact if the issues came not as a series of clauses separated by semi-colons but as a bulleted list:

I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election:

  • the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida;
  • the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power;
  • 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, and too late to the moon and outer space.

Still, each one is expressed simply enough.  The last point relies on the repetition of the word “too” – “too many slums”,  “too few schools,” “too late” to space.

All the same, the speech is extraordinarily well written both for its time and for today.

It reflects the input of Kennedy’s political staff – like ted Sorensen – and undoubtedly the campaigns advertising staff as well.

- srbp -