This was one of the ways John F. Kennedy described the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state in his historic appearance before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 16, 1960, during the campaign that led to his election as the nation's first Catholic president.
In recent years it has become fashionable among ultra-conservative U.S. bishops--and especially in the public utterances of the upwardly aspiring Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver--to argue that bishops do have the authority to tell Catholic politicians what to say and how to vote and that Kennedy had it all wrong. And, after all, Chaput felt compelled to add, what would you expect from "Kennedy, who wore his faith loosely anyway."
Patrick T. Reardon made a valuable contribution to this discussion in an analysis entitled JFK and the cafeteria bishops in the August 6, 2010 print edition of the National Catholic Reporter. The link in the previous sentence is to the August 10th version on the NCR website, indentical except for giving Reardon the wrong middle initial on the by-line. His name is correct in the biographical blurb at the end of the article, which describes Reardon as "a freelance writer living in Chicago."
Actually, Reardon is a bit more than that. In the early 1970s I was in a religious order seminary with him in Southern California. He left the program not long after and went on to become a widely respected urban affairs and features writer for the Chicago Tribune. It appears that he retired around 2009 but, in addition to free-lancing, still writes the Burnham blog for the Burnham Plan Centennial. Burnham was one of the visionaries who crafted a 1909 plan that guided the development of the greater Chicago region for the next century.
Given this background and the accuracy of his analysis of church-state separation from the perspective of U.S. Catholic history, Reardon's article has not received the attention it deserves--either by most of those who have left comments on the online version or even by the editors of NCR, who in an editorial Private beliefs and public acts gave Chaput too much credit and Kennedy much too little.
Despite a lot of comments to NCR that had little relevance to Reardon's main points, a commentator identified only as "stefano" made a very important observation: Kennedy had major help writing his Texas speech from Bishop John Joseph Wright of Worcester, MA. Wright was orthodox enough to later be named Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, where he served in Rome from 1969 to his death in 1979. The NCR commentator notes that at the time highly regarded Msgr. John Tracy Ellis regarded Wright as one of the few intellectuals in the U.S. hierarchy, and that Wright's thinking was much closer to the thought of U.S. Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, which is very much enshrined in Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom.
What Reardon's piece documents so well is that Murray, Wright, Kennedy and the bishops at Vatican II grasped something very central --something which Chaput and his fellow Neanderthals today repeatedly decline to address: that the First Amendment does not permit the adherents of any particular religion to impose their distinctive moral beliefs on people who do not share the same moral assumptions and conclusions--whether those other people are adherents of other religions or even adherents of ethical systems that eschew religion.
The U.S. bishops, especially on the issue of abortion, have been refusing to address this stubborn reality of the First Amendment since the 1960s. Reardon rightly points out that this refusal seems restricted mainly to a couple conservative issues, like abortion and gay marriage, even though the bishops clearly seem to get the point when it comes to not forcing Catholic politicians to pursue Catholic positions on capital punishment or international military aggression. In so doing, the bishops become the kind of "cafeteria Catholics" they accuse others of being--except that they pick only from the conservative political side of the menu while ignoring official teachings they regard as too liberal.
I think Reardon is right. One day church historians will conclude that what John F. Kennedy said to Protestant ministers in Houston in September 1960 will come to be seen as exactly the position which both the First Amendment and the Declaration on Religious Freedom require:
"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 a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or 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."