Lessons from Barack Obama’s JFK Moment


Barack Obama’s speech on Race in America finally makes salient the campaign analogy to John Kennedy. There is much from JFK’s speech that resonates today, which Obama picked up on in his speech yesterday. There is also plenty from Obama’s speech that could not have been spoken 48 years ago.

But for this post, I wish to recall Kennedy’s appeal to secularism that would serve Obama (and the press corp covering Obama) well in 2008.

On September 12, 1960, JFK went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, put his Catholicism on the table and challenged the country to face up to its misperceptions about Catholics and to move beyond them in the general election, which they did.

Obama made a similar appeal today. He put race on the table and challenged the country to have a conversation about racial misperceptions and to move beyond it when considering his candidacy for president.

How the country responds remains a question.

In the meantime, however, the press would be respected for picking up another analogy to the JFK speech. Just as in 1960, the idea of secularism has a potentially relevant role to play in 2008.

The JFK speech spoke of a more secular time in american politics when religious leaders didn’t endorse candidates nor tell their parishioners whom to vote for (think Hagee, Parsley). In addition while the candidate’s political ideas were open for scrutiny personal relationships with clergy were let alone.
Consider the following passage from the Sept. 1960 speech:

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.

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–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.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor 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–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that after Kennedy’s speech, the press didn’t pressure JFK to denounce or reject statements previously made by the Church. Kennedy insisted on and the press respected the candidate’s desire to separate public and private opinion.

Lesson? Perhaps the media should recall the attention it once paid to secular ideals, drop the Wright issue and instead pick up on the bigger public issues of the day, such as efforts the heal the racial divide, and the 5th anniversary of a failed war in Iraq.

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One response to “Lessons from Barack Obama’s JFK Moment

  1. Pingback: Barack Obama News » Blog Archive » Lessons from Barack Obama’s JFK Moment

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