JFK, PALIN, AND ATTACKING A CHERISHED LEGACY…. A few months ago marked the 50th anniversary of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, and delivered one of the important speeches in American history on the role of religion in government. Kennedy, seeking to become the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, eloquently explained the value of First Amendment principles.

It seems foolish a half-century later, but there were widespread fears in 1960 that JFK would somehow be subservient to the pope. It led Kennedy to proclaim, “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.”

He went on to note that he was the target of “the finger of suspicion” at the time, but “tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

The remarks helped set a welcome, timeless standard for religion, government, and politics that responsible figures in both parties could gladly embrace.

At least, it did. As Republicans shift even further to the right, this legacy is being rejected more forcefully by conservatives. This year, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), as part of his presidential ambitions, delivered his own speech, insisting that Kennedy had it backwards.

What’s more, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) devoted some space in her latest book to condemning Kennedy’s 1960 speech. As the conspicuously unintelligent television personality sees it, JFK was wrong — religion and government need not be separate, there’s nothing wrong with forcing American taxpayers to support ministries they may disagree with, and it was incumbent on Kennedy, not to vow governmental neutrality on matters of faith, but to “tell the country how his faith had enriched him.”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did an exceptional job tearing Palin’s nonsense to shreds, but there was one point in particular I thought I’d emphasize.

Palin, for her part, argues that “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs.” That statement amounts to a wholesale attack on countless Americans, and no study or reasonable argument I have seen or heard would support such a blanket condemnation. For a person who claims to admire Lincoln, Palin curiously ignores his injunction that Americans, even those engaged in a Civil War, show “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

I should know better than to be surprised, but for a prominent national figure, in the 21st century, to insist that religion is a mandatory prerequisite to morality strikes me as rather remarkable.

By some estimates, as many as 15% of Americans are either atheists, agnostics, or those who have spiritual beliefs but don’t consider themselves religious. As far as the easily-confused former half-term governor is concerned, this 15% — tens of millions of Americans who have families, work hard, play by the rules — are literally incapable of morality.

That’s astounding.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend concluded that Palin “fails to understand the genius of our nation.” That’s clearly true, but it’s not the only thing Palin fails to understand.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.