JFK, Tocqueville, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president in the history of the United States.  In September of that same year, before his election, Kennedy gave a speech on his religion to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  This association was made up of a group of Protestant ministers who questioned whether or not Kennedy’s faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church.  In his speech, Kennedy expressed that it wasn’t important as to what church he believed in, but rather what America he believed in:

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

Though I definitely believe that religion did not explicitly influence his policies throughout his short presidency, I do believe in the possibility that his Catholic faith subconsciously drove him to really push for the Civil Rights Act.  In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, he explains why he believes that Catholicism is favorable to equality:

“On doctrinal points the Catholic faith places all human capacities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak; it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God.”

Simply put, Tocqueville showed how the very nature of Catholicism gives way to equality across the board.  Later on, he reinforces this point by explaining how in Catholicism, the clergy are the only people who have a higher status in the religion, and everyone else is on the same level.  Is this why JFK was so intent on passing the Civil Rights Act granting full equality to blacks?  No one will ever no for sure, but the possibility is extremely hard to ignore.  Though he was hesitant to really try and pass a bill early on in his presidency due to his fear of angering Southern democrats, he took more of an initiative after George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama, blocked two African American students from attending the University of Alabama.  Later that night, Kennedy gave his famous address on civil rights launching his initiative for legislation.

Another interesting point to consider is that only one Congressman from the Democratic South, Allen Ellender of Louisiana, was Roman Catholic.  Even so, he was not at all a religious person and had no affiliation.  Again, nothing is for sure, but there is once again a definite possibility that religion played a huge part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act seeing as how almost no Congressmen in the Democratic South, the biggest opposers to civil rights, were Roman Catholic.  Maybe Tocqueville was right — Catholicism inherently gives way to equality.  Even if he wasn’t, let’s all be thankful JFK knew the importance of civil rights for all.

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2 Responses to JFK, Tocqueville, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  1. megsavel says:

    I agree with you that JFK’s religion unquestionably influenced his decisions while in office, subconsciously or otherwise. I really don’t understand when politicians say that they are religious, but that their religion will not affect their decision-making. I am a practicing Catholic and I know at least for me, and other people who I know that are religious, my religion affects much of my decision making. For many people religion is the lens through which they see the world. It frames how one thinks about morality and helps people to gauge their priorities. Most religions that I know of don’t encourage their followers to leave their religion in their place of worship. They are encouraged to practice their faith everyday by living good lives and living their faith through everyday practices.

    I don’t think it’s a problem if a politician admits to being influenced by their religion. As long as they don’t use that religion as an excuse to persecute others who don’t share their faith or values and instead use it to think about problems in a way that considers how they will affect everyone and make the moral choice.

  2. bradenburgess says:

    It’s interesting to think about how Catholicism has influenced American government, because, historically, the Catholic Church has been looked upon with suspicion in this country. Personally, I doubt that JFK’s Catholicism influenced his policy on Civil Rights. Revelations about his personal life seem to indicate that he was not very religious, and he was by no means pious. His infidelity is well-known, and it is said his mother was the main reason that he maintained the image of a Catholic man. A recent biography, “An Unfinished Life”, indicates that Kennedy would probably have left the Catholic Church if it weren’t for his devout mother.

    As the blogger pointed out, Kennedy often tried to distance himself from his religion, knowing that many people distrusted the Catholic Church. Although he was sometimes photographed with Catholic prelates, it is clear that he did not want people to remember him as the Catholic president. Today, history has not granted him that wish. If Kennedy were alive today, I suspect he would maintain that his Catholicism did not influence any of his policies.

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