On Sunday mornings when I get ready to come to church, I usually have ABC’s This Week running in the background. (Nothing makes me want to fall on my knees and ask God for mercy like listening to politicians and pundits.) This past Sunday I had the misfortune of listening to Rick Santorum describe how listening to John F.Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him “almost throw up.”
(from the show transcript)
SANTORUM: -- Because the first line, first substantive line in the speech says, "I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute." I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. . .
The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. . .
STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you wanted to throw up?
SANTORUM: . . . Well, yes, absolutely, to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up. . .
Santorum’s comments make me wonder if he actually read JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state, because Kennedy said none of the things Santorum is talking about. I’m not alone inquestioning Santorum’s interpretation of the speech; Joan Walsh of Salon.com, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the LA Times editorial board and even his fellow Catholic Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, have all stated Santorum got it wrong. I and pretty much everyone besides Santorum read Kennedy’s speech to be an argument against the government imposing a particular religious point of view upon people who do not share it. Nowhere does Kennedy say religion should not be a part of the public political process. Instead, he makes an eloquent argument for freedom of religion. (The context for Kennedy’s speech is that he spoke before a group of mostly Baptist ministers in Texas to assure them and others that he—a Catholic—would not take orders from the Vatican if he were elected president.) Here are some excerpts from JFK’s speech:
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 parishoners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts 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 helped lead 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 at a time of great national peril.
Santorum fails to realize that Kennedy’s speech helped pave the way for Catholics like Gingrich and himself to run for president—not to mention Latter Day Saints like Romney and Huntsman. The same freedom that allows people of any religion or no religion to run for public office allows people of any belief to live in freedom in our country. Whatever one may think of Kennedy as a person or as a president—he fought against religious bigotry towards Catholics like himself and religious bigotry of all kinds. This is what makes Santorum’s gastro-intestinal problems so absurd!
As a member of a particular Protestant Christian denomination, I have beliefs that differ from many of my fellow Americans, but because, as a Christian, I believe in loving my neighbor and, as an American, I believe in the right of each person to his or her own religious beliefs, I want Kennedy’s and Jefferson’s “absolute” wall of separation of church and state. This does not mean that the government should be anti-religious, but rather that the government shall not impose one religious belief upon all.
It’s quite common for politicians to play the victim card; doing so energizes their base supporters—be they from the left or the right. Perhaps no victim card is as powerful as the religious victim card—declaring your opponent is “anti-religious” or conducting a “war on religion.” Yet, America remains a religious nation—albeit a more diverse religious nation—today, because despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, the government generally maintains a level playing people for people of all beliefs. Let’s hope for more speeches on religious freedom like that of JFK and less like that of Santorum.
Grace and Peace,
P.S.--It appears even Santorum thinks Santorum went too far in saying JFK's speech made him want to throw up.