By Peter J. Smith

HOUSTON, Texas, March 3, 2010 ( – Fifty years ago in Houston, John F. Kennedy declared in a famous speech to Protestant ministers that his Catholic faith would not influence the public policy decisions he made as President. But Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told an audience at Houston Baptist University on Monday that Americans of all faiths are still “paying for the damage” from a speech that was “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.”

“Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private,” said Chaput. “And we need to think about that simple fact in light of an anniversary.”

Chaput was speaking on "The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life" at the university’s Morris Cultural Art center to an ecumenical audience. The prelate is author of the book “Render Unto Caesar,” and his lecture was sponsored by HBU leadership in conjunction with the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World at the University of St. Thomas.

Archbishop Chaput drew attention to the famous Kennedy speech, explaining that the Democratic candidate in 1960 “needed to convince 300 ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive.”

The speech was a success, Kennedy gained the votes for his election - but Chaput said that speech “left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.”

Although Kennedy’s words were meant to assure Protestant ministers that the Catholic Church would not influence the Presidency, Chaput said that ultimately they, and all people of religious faith, became the losers: the Houston speech “profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers in America’s public life and political conversation.

“Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”

Noting Kennedy’s thundering proclamation of belief in “an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute," Chaput said that vision of America was not shared by the Founding Fathers of the United States, nor did the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intend it.

Instead, Chaput said that the Establishment clause of the First Amendment – prohibiting a federally-sponsored church – was also intended to protect the “publicly funded Protestant Churches” in states such as Massachusetts. That state’s 1780 Constitution had a “mild and equitable establishment of religion” crafted in part by John Adams, the Second US President and signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

“America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government.  Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive,” said Chaput.

“Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.”

But besides feeding into the revisionist vision of America’s founding, he said, Kennedy went a step further and “created a religious problem” that led to unforeseen consequences: the secularization of the Presidency and public office through the privatization of religious belief. 

“It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way," said Chaput. "It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set 'the national interest' over and against 'outside religious pressures or dictates.'"

Fifty years later, Chaput said the United States had more Catholics in office at any time in the nation’s history, and at the same time, perhaps fewer Catholics who could give a “coherent” account of “how their faith informs their work” - or even feel that they need to explain it.

“The life of our country is no more 'Catholic' or 'Christian' than it was 100 years ago.  In fact, it's arguably less so,” said Chaput. “And at least one of the reasons for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don't really believe.

"Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, ‘I doubt it.’”

Chaput reminded that the “vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label,” and if they are to make the United States a Christian country again, Christians need to be one in “mind and heart and action as Christ intended.”

“We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws – deeply shaped by Christian faith," he said. "It can be so again.  But we will do that together, or we won’t do it at all."

Click here to read the complete transcript and watch video of Archbishop Chaput’s address at HSU.