Doris Kearns Goodwin: On John Kerry's Relationship with the Catholic Church

Roundup: Historians' Take

An interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin on the NBC Today Show (April 12, 2004):

LESTER HOLT: Of course John F. Kennedy ran as the first Catholic presidential candidate. There was a controversy then, but if I recall, it was more of a controversy involving non-Catholics and their perception of how he would perform in office as a Catholic.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: That's exactly right. It's incredible to remember how fiery it was when Kennedy first started the primary process. For example, in Protestant West Virginia, he was way ahead, and then as the days approached for the primary he fell behind and they said, 'How did this happen?' And the answer was, 'Well, they didn't know you were a Catholic until now.' And he finally had to answer the problem of being a Catholic--the first Catholic president he would become--in a big speech in Houston, Texas. He was so nervous before that speech. They thought the whole election could ride on it. He wore a conservative black suit, a black tie, but he'd forgotten his black shoes, so brown shoes floated out from the bottom of his trousers. His face was sort of--you could see it was tense. But he gave what was considered a home run of a speech. He said, 'I am not a Catholic running for president, I am the Democratic Party's candidate running for president who happens to be a Catholic.' And then he said, 'I do not intend to dictate to the church what they should do on public policy, and I will not accept their dictation to me.' He even had to answer the fact that he could attend a Protestant Church if a public official who was Protestant had a funeral, because there was this old superstition that a Catholic could never set foot in another Protestant Church without somehow being struck dead at the threshold.

HOLT: So...

Ms. GOODWIN: But once that issue was answered, it seemed like the issue was put to rest. And here it is back again.

HOLT: Yeah, so he makes a--essentially a statement of--a declaration of independence, if you will. How has it been turned around? Has--has this been--have you seen this coming, this notion among some Catholics that--that this was going to be a litmus test?

Ms. GOODWIN: Well, it seems like it's still a small group of conservative Catholics who are claiming that if an individual does not uphold the Catholic teachings as a public politician in his public right, that he's not able to take communion. It's not really what the general feeling of the church is as I understand it. Ever since Vatican II, the feeling is that an individual conscience is making the decision for themselves whether they're in a state of grace when they receive communion. And if we try to make litmus tests for all Catholic politicians, it's going to be really hard to divide them. Because think of it, it's not just conservative issues that some liberals might be against, like against abortion or against civil unions, but the Catholic Church is also against the death penalty, which a lot of conservatives are for. Catholic Church is against birth control, which the majority of the Catholics are for, even in the sense of birth control if you've got AIDS, not assuming condoms should be used. So I think it's really important to distinguish between teachings of the church and what a public politician is able to do in public policy.

HOLT: Well, Doris...

Ms. GOODWIN: The whole foundation was separation of church and state.

HOLT: Let me ask you, has President Bush worn his faith more public--intertwined it more with his public policy than more--other recent presidents?

Ms. GOODWIN: Certainly than more other recent presidents. I mean, there's no question but that faith, religion and God has been a part of presidential, not just politics, but presidents for a very long period of time. But it's so important to remember back to Abraham Lincoln in that great second inaugural when he understood that both sides, the North and the South, read the same Bible so that you shouldn't be able to use religion as a way of dividing people. That's the strength of this country. People came here because they didn't want religious tests imposed. They didn't want to have to say one church or another could become a public official. So I hope that this story, in the end, comes back to what the archdiocese in Boston finally said, even though you quoted earlier what O'Malley had said previously. Finally, they said they're not going to get involved in this campaign, and reminded people that it still is up to the individual to decide whether they're in a state of grace when they go to communion. If we start turning away public people for communion because of their stance on public issues, I think the foundation of our country, separation of church and state, will really be hurt.

HOLT: Doris, we always value your perspective. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Ms. GOODWIN: You're very welcome.

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More Comments:

Nancy Tann - 4/16/2004

Sure is great to hear from her again. I've missed you!