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Escaping Tolerance

Gentlemen, start your defibrillators. To baby boomers like me it’s gives the heart a bit of jolt to realize that 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum out on Columbia Point in Boston late last week for the first time since shortly after the permanent collection opened in 1980. Right now, they’re paying special attention to the 1960 election anniversary. Memories flooded back.

I was nine years old when JFK was elected, living in a house divided. My mother and I supported Kennedy; my father and older brother professed allegiance to Nixon — I still have their Republican Party tie clip featuring a cheap gold caricature of Tricky Dick, an exaggerated ski nose making him look more like Bob Hope than the twitchy misanthrope we all knew and loved.

For a kid, that brief thousand days of the Kennedy presidency were a heady mix of exhilaration and despair: I was alternately captivated by the family’s youth, energy and charisma; terrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis; thrilled by the early flights of the space program; devastated by the assassination in 1963.

The Kennedy Library and Museum’s reflect all of that and more; displays filled with campaign paraphernalia, newspaper front pages, video clips, documents and other assorted, historic ephemera — even the coconut on which Kennedy scratched a message to rescuers in the South Pacific after his PT 109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

In one of the clear plastic display cases were two typewritten pages from one of the most important speeches John F. Kennedy ever delivered: his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, exactly fifty years ago this week, with words as relevant, in the face of today’s Islamophobia and other fears, as they were then.

Dogged by misperceptions about his Catholic faith and scurrilous allegations that his dedication to country would be superseded by allegiance to the Pope, Kennedy tackled the separation of church and state head on, with words as relevant, in the face of today’s Islamophobia and other unreasoned fears, as they were then.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” he said, “where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

Fifty years later, as political journalist Steve Benen noted on his Washington Monthly blog, “Political Animal,” little attention was paid to the speech former Republican Senator Rick Santorum delivered last week to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s landmark address. It turned what JFK believed on its head. “Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith,” Santorum declared.

“… Kennedy’s speech was historic because it did offer a teachable moment. In the short term it accomplished a great good by helping to put an end to Catholic bigotry. Unfortunately, its lasting impact not only undermined the essential role that faith has successfully played in America, but it reduced religion to mere personal ‘belief’ and helped launch a cultural revolution, proclaiming loudly that on matters of moral consequence, reason has no truths it can discern, nothing of moral significance it can claim to know, much less contribute to the public debate.”

A wildly untrue exaggeration. As Benen wrote, “The right-wing politician who’d like to be the second Roman Catholic president made his case that Kennedy’s commitment to First Amendment principles was a big mistake.”

Santorum proclaimed Kennedy’s principles rooted not in good old American belief but on “a model used in countries like France and until recently Turkey.” This, of course, is a popular form of right wing attack — associating the opposition with, gasp, some foreign country. Witness Newt Gingrich’s embrace of a recent Forbes.com article, “How Obama Thinks,” by Dinesh D’Souza, in which the right wing commentator links the president’s political philosophy to his Kenyan father in ludicrous, derogatory fashion.

D’Souza writes, “Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost.”

Gingrich called this the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama,” to which former Bush speechwriter David Frum replied, “With the Forbes story and now the Gingrich endorsement, the argument that Obama is an infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner — and not just any kind of alien, but specifically a Third World alien — has been absorbed almost to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010… When last was there such a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics at the national level? George Wallace took more care to sound race-neutral.”

Years ago, I interviewed the great American comic writer and satirist Larry Gelbart. I asked him why, during a large art of the 1960s, he had chosen to live in Britain rather than the United States. He joked, “To escape religious tolerance.”

As time goes by, the joke wears thin, its premise false. Increasingly, what we tolerate instead is prejudice, ignorance and just plain damned foolishness.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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