Sep 26 2017

The Religious Diplomacy of Joseph P. Kennedy

Graves at Glasnevin Cemetery - Dublin, Ireland

The Religious Diplomacy of Joseph P. Kennedy

Religion is opinions and actions, determined and restricted with stipulations and prescribed for a community by their first ruler, who seeks to obtain through their practicing it a specific purpose with respect to them or by means of them.

––Al-Farabi (872–951 AD), The Book of Religion[1]

Al Smith’s presidential loss in 1928 and Jack Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 concerning religion and government have both been run through the ringer aplenty. There are shelfs and stacks of books that compare and contrast (and exhaust) those two events, and I’m honestly not very interested in reading more about them.

But after reading Robert Dalleck’s A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963 (2001), I was struck that the most interesting character was Kennedy’s father Joseph Patrick Kennedy.

So soon enough I began reading David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2012), and soon enough, I came upon these two quite remarkable passages:

Opposing or remaining neutral to Jack’s candidacy, as the church leaders now appeared to be doing, was, Kennedy believed, a betrayal not only of him, his son, and his family, but of the millions of American Catholics who stood to benefit from the election of one of their own to the presidency of the United States. For perhaps the first time in his life, certainly for the first time since the death of Joe Jr., Joseph P. Kennedy was forced to reconsider, to reevaluate, the ties that bound him to his church. “My relationship with the Church will never be the same,” he confessed to Galeazzi in an April 17 letter,” and certainly, never the same with the hierarchy. But that will not make any difference to them, I am sure, and I can assure you that it will not make any difference to me. For the last few years which I have left, I will indulge myself at least in continuing to believe that friends are friends when you need them. Please do not be upset yourself about my attitude. I would not want anything to annoy you.” [2]

And:

[Billy] Graham, on arriving at the Palm Beach house in mid-January, was greeted by the president-elect. “My father’s out by the pool. He wants to talk to you.” At poolside, the two shook hands, then Kennedy, Graham recalled in his autobiography, “came straight to the point: ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ ” Kennedy told the evangelist (and Nixon supporter) that he and Father Cavanaugh had been in Stuttgart, Germany, when Graham lectured through an interpreter to an audience of sixty thousand. “When we visited the pope three days later, we told him about it. He said he wished he had a dozen such evangelists in our church. When Jack was elected, I told him that one of the first things he should do was to get acquainted with you. I told him you could be a great asset to the country, helping heal the division over the religious problem in the campaign.’” [3]

So what’s happening to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888–1969) in these two instances? If we apply Al-farabi’s formulation to these two instances, the first thing to consider is what we interpret Al-farabi to mean by “first ruler.” A literal interpretation would mean George Washington, and one could elaborate and discuss Washington’s deism and any sense of “civil religion” stemming from that which might’ve later been prescribed to the country’s citizenry. A contextual interpretation would mean John Kennedy, and one could elaborate and discuss Jack’s Catholicism and any sense of “civil religion.”

In the first instance, Kennedy has lost tremendous faith in the administrators of American Catholicism following the election of his son to the presidency.

In the second, we see that, despite that loss of faith, Kennedy still wants what (he sees) as best for American Catholicism, and the best he could see for that Catholicism in 1960 was for it to attempt to reconcile, understand, and begin a dialogue with American Protestantism.

Nearly sixty years later, it is easy to say––particularly with the rise and fall of the Religious Right––that that reconciliation was never absolute. There seem to be more significant divisions within the American Protestantism of 2017 and within the American Catholicism of 2017 than the divisions between the two.

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[1] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, Translated by Charles E. Butterworth. (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY), “Book of Religion” p. 93, § 1.

[2] Nasaw, David. The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012) 724.

[3] Nasaw 757.