James S. Robbins: ON the differences between Obama's race speech and Kennedy's religion speech

Roundup: Historians' Take

[James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, and author of a forthcoming book on the Tet Offensive.]

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times stated Thursday: “Barack Obama this week gave the best political speech since John Kennedy talked about his Catholicism in Houston in 1960.… It was not a sound bite, but a symphony.” Effusions of this sort have been common in the last few days, so in that respect the comment is not particularly noteworthy. But I was struck by the reference to then-Senator Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which JFK addressed the question of whether a good Catholic can also be a good president. Would he take orders from Rome? Would he be a shill for the Vatican? Or could he maintain the wall between church and state, between private faith and public policy? The issue had arisen in 1928 campaign of Al Smith, who tried not to talk about it, to his disadvantage. Kennedy took the issue head on.

A group of leading Protestants, including Norman Vincent Peale, had organized a group called “Citizens for Religious Freedom” to bring the matter to public attention. Peale backed Richard Nixon, but Nixon had no ties to the group. Indeed the vice president, a Quaker, stated that it would be best to take the issue of religion out of the race altogether. “I would hope we could have a cutoff on this discussion,” Nixon said. “I would hope Senator Kennedy would feel the same. If the two candidates do not discuss it, it won’t be in the news.”

Kennedy agreed with Nixon, and said in response, “I wish we could cut off debate on this subject right now. I think we’d all be better off.” This was the context in which Kennedy went before 500 of Houston’s men of the cloth.

That raises one important point of contrast to the Obama speech. Kennedy went before an audience that he knew could be hostile, and was at best neutral. Some newspaper headlines invoked the image of Daniel in the lion’s den. Obama, on the other hand, spoke to a small group of invited supporters. Both received applause during their appearances, but that was not exactly the achievement for Obama that it was for Kennedy. Had Obama appeared before a gathering of critics of Reverend Wright’s general orientation, or, more dramatically, before Rev. Wright’s congregation, the analogy would hold better. As it was Senator Obama did not assume anywhere near the risk that Senator Kennedy did.

A second critical difference that magnifies the first point is that after Kennedy delivered his remarks he engaged in a question-and-answer session with the ministers. He answered every question that was put to him, as many as they wanted — approximately 18 total, depending on how one counts follow-ups and comments. The questions and answers tended to be very lengthy and detailed. Kennedy answered without notes, keeping his temper even when the questions were a bit arch. ...

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