"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote," Kennedy said in a speech at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Kennedy's comments helped his candidacy. Today, Santorum's very different comments may also work in his favor – in the Republican primary at least.
"Back in 1960, John Kennedy had to stress the distance between public life and religion," says Robert Schmuhl, a Notre Dame University expert on US politics, in an e-mail interview from London, where he is teaching this spring. For Santorum, "catering to social conservatives is one way he can appeal to an important Republican Party constituency in the primaries and caucuses."
Public concerns about whether a Catholic would make a dangerous president, while they may not have disappeared, have faded. By contrast, two-thirds of Americans today see religion as "losing influence" in US life, rather than gaining, according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And many, especially among Republicans, see that as a problem.
When Kennedy was seeking the presidency, only a small minority of Americans felt that religion was "losing its influence," according to Gallup polling at the time.