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The Making of a Presidential Soul

Patrick Lacroix is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire.

That this is an unprecedented presidential election campaign is already a cliché. The country has never seen the likes of the two leading contenders—and in one case, anything quite like the candidate’s words and deeds. But most remarkable of all, considering the arc of American politics in the last four decades, is the limited attention either candidate has received from the perspective of his or her faith.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have apparently sought to relegate their religious identities to a personal sphere, inconsequential to their politics or to the voting public. Both have proven reluctant to speak on their faith, with small, tentative exceptions (see here and here, for instance).

This is an important departure from our recent past. We need only think of Richard Nixon who, in his political comeback, spoke the values of a “silent majority” and enjoyed the friendship of revivalist Billy Graham. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush recurrently identified as born-again evangelical Christians. John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama all directly answered media scrutiny of their relationships to their respective churches.

Clinton and Trump, on the other hand, are of a different mold and we have to go back several generations to find a precedent to their relative silence. Unconsciously, they have taken a leaf from John F. Kennedy’s book.

Few presidents have had their religious convictions so thoroughly scrutinized—to such widely diverging conclusions—as Kennedy. This is a paradox of history, for it owes largely to Kennedy’s desire to keep his faith private. Not once, in eleven years of shared endeavors, did he breathe word of his convictions to his closest political advisor. But far from heeding the slain president’s wishes, scholars, pundits, and ordinary Americans have continued to weigh in, seeking the Roman Catholic president’s soul with a curiosity not granted to chief executives who vocalized their beliefs.

We may be excused. There are legitimate reasons to our continuing quest to understand Kennedy from a moral perspective, with potential lessons for our current presidential contenders.

Kennedy, elusive in so many ways, is still so for his religious commitments. Charles Morris deplores that Kennedy was “an utterly secular man, a completely assimilated product of American, not Catholic, culture.” At the other end of the spectrum, sociologist Andrew Greeley believed he merited the title of Doctor of the Church. Family members, friends, and aides have noted that Kennedy followed the rites of his church. Cardinal Richard Cushing, who married Jack and Jackie, declared that the president was “as good a Catholic” as himself. Yet amidst these portrayals of a dedicated Catholic, many included a caveat. Joseph P. Kennedy was “not particularly impressed” with his son’s Catholic convictions, and Jackie wondered if there was genuine substance to her husband’s swift, formulaic prayers. Other sources contribute to an ambiguous portrait. Why is this so? The reasons, as we might expect, are both political and personal.

Kennedy’s religious affiliation caused no consternation in the Boston congressional district that elected him seventy years ago. Nor was it an issue of much consequence at the state level: an Irish Catholic had previously held the Senate seat that Kennedy won in 1952. The national stage was another matter entirely. Democratic candidate Al Smith had suffered the barbs of Protestant fear and suspicion in 1928. As Kennedy launched his own presidential bid a generation later, he too faced longstanding anti-Catholic sentiments. Repeatedly—his Houston speech is his most famous declaration on the issue—he assured the nation that he would not take orders from his church. He offered as evidence his dissenting views on aid to education, contraception, and relations with the Holy See.

Kennedy’s victory in November 1960 failed to lay the “religious issue” to rest. The first Catholic president faced the political backlash of coreligionists disappointed with his opposition to federal aid for religious elementary and secondary schools. The bishops, who had done him no favors by stirring up controversy in the midst of the campaign, now appeared especially intransigent. Then, a clause permitting Peace Corps contracts for denominational bodies raised the specter of Catholic influence and questions as to Kennedy’s dedication to the separation of church and state—Protestants fearful of “Catholic power” again expressed concern. The Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools, in 1962, threatened to propel the president into another highly contentious debate.

Kennedy’s relative silence on his personal religious commitments continued down to a clear, crisp day of April 1963. Surrounded by his brother Edward, Cardinal Cushing, Speaker of the House John McCormack, and other Catholics both clerical and lay, the president then ascended a platform at Boston College’s Alumni Stadium for the institution’s centennial convocation. Before an audience of thousands, he praised the papal encyclical Pacem in Terris, released days before, for its “penetrating analysis of today’s great problems—of social welfare and human rights—of disarmament, international order and peace.” He explained to his adoring audience that “[a]s a Catholic I am proud of it, and as an American I have learned from it.” Through successive controversies, he had shown his distance from Catholic influence in policymaking and now judged it prudent to make such statements—but in the next seven months, the last of his life, he went no farther.

Thus we must also consider the personal. There is an easy contrast to be made between John’s path through Choate and Harvard and his brother Robert’s more traditional Catholic education and proximity to their mother’s faith. Biographers have represented Robert as a man whose conscience was more easily pricked, one often torn by moral questions. Much like their sister Kathleen, who married a Protestant and incurred her parents’ stern disapproval, John did not draw intellectual inspiration from Catholic thinkers, nor did he lead a life minutely regulated by Church rites and teachings. It is in other ways that he exercised his conscience. Revelations concerning his extramarital affairs alone have fueled much of the debate concerning his faith and his place within the Catholic Church, though providing little clarity as to his innermost beliefs.

The assessments that seem closest to the truth are naturally the least categorical. Journalist John Cogley, long associated with The Commonweal, thought Kennedy to be neither religiously illiterate nor “theologically sophisticated.” “[His] religion was humane rather than doctrinal,” wrote Schlesinger, his occasional advisor. Cool, intellectual, pragmatic, and somewhat cynical, he was suspicious of zeal. When meeting Ralph Dungan, a coreligionist interested in joining his staff, Senator Kennedy meant to make sure that he would not be “getting some Catholic nut.” Kennedy’s faith was a lay interpretation of Catholic teachings that was removed from the Church’s most conservative pronouncements, as he made plain in 1963.

Kennedy is often made more inscrutable than he was because observers have focused on his policies and conflated his politics with his personal faith, as though the former reflected his deepest beliefs. Those political stances overall reflected his genuine commitment to church-state separation. Yet it also becomes clear that he was interested in separating his personal religious beliefs from his responsibilities.

Scholars who have sought to define John F. Kennedy’s faith with exact precision have sometimes missed the point that he himself made if not in words, then in deeds. He determined that his personal beliefs (or, cynics will assert, the lack thereof) would in fact be irrelevant to the national interest. He believed he should be judged not by his affiliation or conscience, but by the policies he sought to enact and by his ability to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But to the common voter, that did not suffice then, nor typically does it today.

We find part of the reason in the work of sociologist Robert Bellah’s “Civil Religion in America,” published in 1967. Bellah drew attention to the rituals that express the religious dimension of American public life and thus provide “legitimation” to the national purpose and values. These rituals transcend denominational and partisan divides and give an “ultimate significance” that democratic processes cannot.

In Bellah’s framework, the president is not only the ceremonial “high priest” of the civil religion, as one historian puts it; he (or she) is the near-literal embodiment of the nation. American citizens expect to find their nation’s defining values represented in the highest office-holder’s experience, character, and outlook. Thus, by the trust invested by citizens in their elected leader, the relationship between the nation and its president becomes synecdochical: the one stands in for the other and vice versa. If this is more complicated is such a polarized country as ours, the president may, by fulfilling their ceremonial role, provide unity that subsumes our “petty interests and ugly passions” to shared national commitments.

This is reminiscent of the “two bodies” that Ernst H. Kantorowicz described in connection with medieval kingship—one body physical and finite, the other legal and, being of divine sanction, immortal. An American president does not have a legal or divine existence of the kind suggested by Kantorowicz, and neither does his or her office. But the presidency does have a dual religious existence. One aspect is personal, tied to the office holder rather than the office, and generally expressed in denominational terms. The other is public and tied to the office: it is the expression of the people’s beliefs and aspirations. This aspect, the “civil-religious duty,” transcends the personal occupation of the office. If not two bodies, an American president must, by convention, have two souls.

John F. Kennedy fulfilled his civil-religious role and in his view, no doubt, that ought to have sufficed. But as he left little of his beliefs to posterity, we continue to prod both his person and his politics. We still try to understand him and his place in American history by way of a personal moral compass (and among Catholics, a denominational compass).

As with historians seeking Kennedy’s compass in his politics, the two souls are easily conflated. Here Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump could take note. On the campaign trail, a candidate aspiring to the presidency must speak the language of civil religion. Yet American voters scrutinize more than party platforms and policy statements in the months preceding each presidential election—certainly, seldom are they satisfied with professions of patriotism and assertions of American exceptionalism.

Voters seek a glimpse of candidates’ souls. If this is evident among conservatives who desire greater influence for their brand of Christianity, voters across the spectrum seek reassurance on a personal level. They look for clues to a person’s innermost and most sincere beliefs, traditionally found in his or her religious views. Only then, it seems, do they rest assured that a given candidate will defend those shared national commitments.

Our experience with recent presidential candidates and presidents shows that there may be something to gain by baring in some measure one’s religious identity. Some may argue that the current candidates need to recapture a civil-religious tone. But from Kennedy we see that that may not be enough. At a time when the American electorate has significant reservations, even mistrusts both contenders, the openness that comes with sharing sincerely and dearly held convictions may make the difference between victory and defeat. Both Clinton and Trump can learn from the lingering questions concerning Kennedy. Both have been politically elusive; greater assurances as to their respective moral cores may help resolve that.