Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to a group of religious leaders in Houston during which he strongly endorsed the separation of church and state.

Kennedy, the first (and so far only) Roman Catholic to win the presidency, had been under scrutiny by some members of the clergy who worried that he might use the nation’s highest office to elevate the public policy goals of his church.

Kennedy defused those fears with a masterful speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association at the Rice Hotel in Houston the evening of Sept. 12, 1960. Some scholars believe the speech gave Kennedy the momentum he needed to eke out a narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon two months later.

This eloquent passage is often cited: “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.”

Stirring words indeed. But there’s another passage that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in today’s climate. JFK made it clear that if he were ever challenged to reconcile his personal faith with the public interest, he would choose the latter.

“Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance … with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates,” Kennedy said. “And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come – and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible – when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any other conscientious public servant would do likewise.”

Americans United’s National Advocacy Summit kicks off today. (You can watch it online here.) Among the issues we’ll be discussing is efforts by Christian nationalists to misuse religious freedom as an instrument of discrimination and a device to take away the right of others.

Tomorrow we’ll rally for a National Day of Action. We’ll urge members of Congress to pass the Do No Harm Act, key legislation that will make it clear that freedom can’t be used to harm others. (Among the speakers will be U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, the grandson of JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy.)

President Kennedy understood that religious freedom was meant to be a shield to protect your beliefs, not a sword to lash out at others; he made that case powerfully 60 years ago. Americans United will be carrying that spirit forward during the National Advocacy Summit. Please join us!

Photo: John F. Kennedy speaks to religious leaders in Houston, Sept. 12, 1960