Posts Tagged John F. Kennedy

Political perspective

US Capitol“Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.”

I guess it’s good to know that some things never change. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote the above description for his book Profiles in Courage, which was published in 1956. As we wait to experience the fallout of the Sequester, it seemed especially timely.

Kennedy could have easily been describing the political madness of 2013. The “necessities of election and accomplishment” seem to take precedence over government.

As Kennedy says, that kind of political life is indeed expensive and mechanistic. Candidates have to spend millions and billions of dollars on ads in a seemingly never-ending election cycle, inviting special interests and rich backers to gain undue influence. Every appearance and statement is tightly choreographed, making our representatives seem like walking lists of talking points.

Of course, things have changed since 1956. Kennedy goes on to mention the Cold War and how the rigid ideology it spawned was also affecting American political discourse. It’s also hard to compare the party dynamics of the 1950s Congress to today’s without doing some more research. Perhaps another day.

Regardless, the government Kennedy worked in, as both a Congressman and Senator, and later led as President, was able to muddle through several international crises and the Civil Rights Movement. Have our leaders done everything perfectly over the past 57 years? Nope. Yet the government, and the United States itself, is still here.

Political strife may have reached an all-time high, but parties and individuals have been arguing with each other since this country was founded. Just look at the stories of the eight Senators Kennedy profiles, or watch Lincoln.

Past Congresses have had to enact the founding principles of the United States, fight wars, and bring about social change. All this Congress had to do was pass a budget. Its members may not like each other, and they may need to get their priorities in order, but that didn’t stop their predecessors.

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In politics, some things never change

When Rick Santorum said he wanted to “throw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech “The Religion Issue in American Politics,” it was, to say the least, controversial. How could a Catholic presidential candidate be so disgusted by the only Catholic president’s campaign statement on religion? Santorum thought Kennedy was trying to subvert religion and, as I shall try to explain, this is not the first time that mistake has been made. However, in today’s highly polarized social climate, it may have very different consequences.

Kennedy gave his speech on April 21, 1960 to answer anti-Catholic statements. His opponents argued that Kennedy would always put his religion first and thus would not represent the values of the majority of Americans. Kennedy answered with an endorsement of religious plurality. “For voters are more than Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They make up their minds for many diverse reasons, good and bad. To submit the candidates to a religious test is unfair enough – to apply it to the voters themselves is divisive, degrading and wholly unwarranted,” Kennedy said. Bringing religion into a presidential election only created false divisions among people who voted for a variety of reasons, not just religious ones.

Not every American practices the exact same religion, or thinks of everything in religious terms, but Santorum’s reaction to the Kennedy speech is not the first time someone has confused that statement for anti-religious sentiment. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When Jefferson became president, his Federalist opponents used those words against him.

Federalist newspapers published editorials declaring Jefferson an anti-Christian and thus unfit to lead the nation. Again, an endorsement of religious plurality was viewed by some as an attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; in this case, Jefferson’s reference to “twenty gods or no gods” was twisted into proof that Jefferson was either a polytheist pagan or an atheist.

However, the Federalists’ propaganda would probably have been viewed differently in the 1800s than Santorum’s statement is in 2012. Jefferson had worked with the men that eventually became the Federalists to draft the principles of the new American republic; it is unlikely that their positions on religion’s relationship with politics differed enough for the Federalists to honestly argue that Jefferson’s policies threatened Christianity. Instead, this was good ‘ole character assassination, an attempt to paint Jefferson as immoral and thus unfit for the Presidency.

Santorum’s reaction to Kennedy’s speech has a much broader tone. He obviously wasn’t trying to say that Kennedy was immoral or unfit to lead, why would he? Instead, Santorum seemed to be trying to prove his chops as a defender of the faith in a Republican primary where conservative Christian votes matter.

In that context, it’s no wonder Santorum started feeling sick when he read the Kennedy speech, because he is doing exactly what Kennedy warned against: creating false divides based on voter’s religious views. Criticizing candidate Kennedy for acknowledging that people vote for non-religious reasons will only anger those people, and set them against Santorum’s supporters, whose fears of religious persecution are stirred up when the candidate talks about one of his fellow Catholic’s most important speeches as a threat to religious freedom.

The stakes are a lot higher than in Jefferson’s time. The author of the Declaration of Independence could shrug off an attack on his religious views, and return the favor in kind. The Federalists were attacking one man, Santorum was attacking a large segment of the electorate. In politics, some things never change, but the context does.

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