This past Saturday, September 11, the College of Arts and Letters continued its Saturday Scholar Series with a panel on Religion and American Public Life. In conjunction with the James P. Reilly, Sr. Lecture on Religion and Public Life the night before, the panel discussed John F. Kennedy’s campaign speech on the separation of Church and State and what that means to American Catholics 50 years later. Moderating the panel was Michael Zuckert, professor of political science and head of the Tocqueville Center for the Study of Religion in American Public Life.

Richard Garnett of the Notre Dame Law School began the discussion by inquiring into what we mean by separation of Church and State. Quoting Benedict XVI, Garnett stated that although we often think of separation of Church and State as promoted by secularists, in fact, the very idea is based on a Christian view of politics and is consistent with the Catholic Church’s teachings. It is consistent because the Church does not wish to silence religious opinion in the political world, but rather underscore and promote it. This separation allows us to be as “God-soaked as we want” without the government prohibiting freedom of religious expression.

In the question and answer session that followed the panel, Garnett stressed that it was wrong to criticize the bishops for “not separating Church and State” in objecting to the invitation of Obama, since separation of Church and State indicates that the State has no jurisdiction over the Church’s authority. Thus, since the bishops were making statements concerning the actions of Catholics, they have an authority which the State cannot inhibit.

            Cathleen Kaveny, also of the Law School, followed Garnett by discussing Kennedy’s reasons for giving the speech. Kaveny explained that the Houston Baptists could foresee two problems that Kennedy’s Catholic faith would pose to his presidency: the basis for his decisions and whether he would let his Catholic beliefs shape the law in opposition to Protestant beliefs.

            Next on the panel was John McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. As an historian, he addressed the movement of religion from the private sphere to the political sphere. McGreevy added that the context in which Kennedy spoke was one in which the consensus was that religion was a “personal thing that had no place in politics.”

McGreevy explained that in years following Kennedy’s speech, the occurrence of the civil rights movement, the evangelical movement, the Second Vatican Council, and Roe vs. Wade  have contributed to religion’s role as a force within politics.

            The final panelist was political science Professor Vincent Philip Muñoz. In his opening remarks, he discussed the two-way street between America and religion. While the constitution allows and encourages American citizens to pursue their religious beliefs, this right is yoked with a responsibility to be a good citizen of the United States. The main purpose of Kennedy’s speech was to reassure the audience that he agreed with the American Creed and had been and would be a good citizen.

After their concluding remarks, the panelists answered questions from the audience on topics such as the invitation of Obama by the Notre Dame administration, the role of the Catholic faith in the Supreme Court, the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and the possibility of a Muslim counterpart to Kennedy.

Nathaniel Gotcher, a sophomore Archie of Morrissey Manor, has been (intellectually) enriched by the writing of this article. He can be reached at ngotcher@nd.ed