Rick Santorum and JFK

Peter Mains is a blogger, political activist and technology consultant living and working in the Phoenix metro area. In his free time, he enjoys writing music, reading voraciously, and trying exotic food.

Rick Santorum’s comments to George Stephanopoulos about John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association are making the rounds. Apparently, the speech so unnerved Rick, that he wanted to throw up. He thinks you should be just as offended as he is, In the interview, Santorum encouraged people to look the speech up and decide for themselves. Having followed Santorum’s suggestion, I couldn’t disagree more.

The worst part is, I want to root for Rick Santorum. Recent revelations paint Kennedy as something of a moral monster. In contrast, Rick Santorum seems like a good family man. When it comes to religious matters, one might think that Santorum would come out on top. Nevertheless, JFK wipes the floor with Santorum — even from beyond the grave.

The one point where I am ambivalent in regard to Kennedy’s speech is his insistence that government not give any funding to religious institutions whatsoever. Bush’s faith-based initiatives and various voucher programs show that public funds can be redirected to religious institutions without creating a de facto established church or violating freedom of religious exercise. Nevertheless, such issues could be completely avoided if we were to reform education, healthcare and so on such that government gets out of those businesses altogether.

On the general principle of the “separation of church and state,” JFK is undoubtedly correct. Perhaps Santorum has a “separation of morality and state” in mind, but that is not how Kennedy is widely understood here. Rather, he is arguing that Catholics in public office are not a threat to the stability of a free society. The Pope should not be or be seen as a de facto cabinet member in the case of a Catholic president such as Kennedy. We do not want our government and our churches to be enmeshed institutions.

The history of the First Amendment bears out why this is. In medieval England, the church formed a separate “estate.” Catholic bishops and abbots at one time formed their own house of parliament. Later, Henry VIII formed a national church that would assume powers we associate with government today, yet be more compliant with the will of the king.

This established church, the Church of England, is what is prohibited by the establishment clause and was precisely what Puritans, Baptists and other “dissenters” who colonized the New World feared. As Kennedy notes in his speech, Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom was made in response to the persecution of Baptist ministers.

The establishment clause and the protection of free exercise of religion both address concrete abuses of the colonial period. Given this information, the separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution is not a separation between religious values and state. Rather, it protects the state from becoming a vassal of a particular church or the church becoming the ward of the state. Reading the speech in its entirety along with the question and answer period leaves no doubt that this is what Kennedy meant.

But, Santorum argues, Kennedy is against anyone of faith exerting influence in society when he states a belief in an absolute separation of church and state. This viewpoint is nonsensical. If Kennedy were really unveiling a radical viewpoint that religious figures should excluded from public debate and the public square, then a gathering of Protestant ministers would be an absurd venue to do so. Furthermore, in the question and answer session, Kennedy teases apart this ambiguity by pointing out that “any Baptist minister or Congregational minister has the right and duty to try to guide his flock.” This is not to say that any Baptist or Congregational minister would have his hand directly on the levers of power. The purpose of Kennedy’s speech, though, was to assuage fears that many Protestants had regarding the Catholic Church having direct influence on the US government.

Kennedy did say, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; 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.” This is a far cry from saying that no person of faith should be allowed to hold office or voice an opinion in politics. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Vatican would give such instructions if asked. After all, Papal infallibility does not extend beyond “faith and morals” — a phrase Kennedy himself used in response to B.E. Howard’s question. Moreover, Kennedy was presenting himself as a man of faith expressing political opinions and wishing to exert political influence.

Perhaps Santorum had the abortion issue in mind. This would be anachronistic. Roe v. Wade was 13 years in the future at the time of Kennedy’s speech. It is possible that such an issue would have caused Kennedy to modify his statements by adding certain caveats. On the other hand, maybe he would have joined his brother Ted in supporting abortion. His 1963 assassination precludes us from knowing with any certanty what Kennedy would have thought of Roe v. Wade.

A more relevant issue at the time — one that Kennedy was quizzed on by two attendees — was the opening of an interfaith chapel. Kennedy had been invited to attend, and initially accepted. When he found that the chapel would not be consecrated and therefore would not be the site of any Catholic mass, he reversed his position. Kennedy states he “was invited obviously as a serviceman because I came from a prominent Catholic family.” He did not object to attending this overtly religious function as a serviceman, i.e. a representative of the US military, but he did object attending as a Catholic and thus giving the “erroneous impression” that Catholics were to be included in this interfaith chapel.

If Santorum wants the Catholic Church to give instructions on matters of public policy, I would like to know how that affects his position on the Iraq War. If he ignores the position of our bishops on that issue, I have to ask why given his disdain for a separation of church and state. On Obamacare, many Catholic bishops stood in support of “universal healthcare.” Presumably Santorum would not want Catholic politicians to accept marching orders on that issue, either. I understand that these matters are not infallibly taught or necessarily binding on all Catholics, but that is precisely the point Kennedy was making and the Santorum seems to be evading.

Even if the Church did attempt to bring Catholic politicians into line by excommunicating those not deemed sufficiently obedient, it is unlikely that such measures would be effective. Presumably, Nancy Pelosi would discover a newfound devotion to Episcopalianism or Unitarianism or whatever. Tom Tancredo — the Colorado uber-conservative who has butted heads with the Catholic Church on immigration — did leave.

If faith in the public square is in danger, someone should tell our president. I suspect his theology is less than orthodox (perhaps due to ignorance born of his largely atheist upbringing), but he never misses an opportunity to wrap his political vision in religious garb. His inaugural address exhorted us to “set aside childish things,” a reference to 1st Corinthians. A recent prayer breakfast became a miniature campaign rally. This may not be the sort of religious expression that Santorum has in mind, but it certainly falls short of an absolute “separation of church and state” in the sense of a “separation of morality and state” or “separation of religious values and state.”

Even if you do believe that faith in the public square is imperiled today, it takes quite a leap of imagination to believe that Kennedy was laying the groundwork for a secularist conspiracy to drum all religious influence from politics, for reasons already stated. Presumably, the ministers Kennedy was addressing thought that they should have a voice in shaping public policy. If they did not feel that Kennedy was attempting to cow them into silence, then neither should Santorum.

This is not the only gaffe Santorum has made when attempting to apply his Catholic faith to politics. In an interview with NPR, Santorum said, “If Darwin is right, I have organized my life around an illusion. We have no moral demands if we are evolved.” Pope John Paul II didn’t think so. John Paul himself said in 1996 (albeit not ex cathedra) that the evolution of the human body is compatible with the Catholic faith.

The human spirit and mind are a different matter. John Paul rejected theories which “consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.” Had Santorum taken this position, he would have found himself in league with C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and other Christian intellectual greats who resisted the modern temptation to “abolish man” and make Darwinism a central metaphor for life and public policy. Even if Santorum believes that evolution is incorrect as a scientific theory, to imply that it is incompatible with the Catholic faith is a step too far and Santorum was wrong to give this erroneous impression.

I suspect that Rick Santorum knows this. Evolution has been a highly politicized issue at least since the time of Clarence Darrow and declaring your opposition to the theory of evolution is politically advantageous. Santorum was declaring evolution to be an political line in the sand between believers and non-believers. You either share the worldview around which Santorum has organized his life, or your are against all morality. Similarly, you are either with Santorum or you support that godless John F. Kennedy. Bear in mind that one of the logical conclusions to draw from this false dichotomy is that the Pope isn’t Catholic.

We see this same despicable straw man technique in the October 18, 2011 debate. Speaking of Latinos, Santorum said, “This is a community that is a faith-filled community, that family is at the center of that community. I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual.“ Now, Ron Paul is a father and a grandfather, so his private life suggests that he values family. Nobody suggests that Ron Paul abandoned Rand in the woods as a boy with a spear and a loin cloth to live out a hyper-individualist credo and fend for himself. In public life, Ron Paul supported the Defense of Marriage Act and cosponsored the Marriage Protection Act. To suggest that Ron Paul is anti-family requires the same type of creativity it takes to be suggest that JFK was against Catholics in politics.

If you look at the transcript, it appears that Ron Paul himself was somewhat baffled by the comment. He responded with his own non sequitur. “Well, I would like to explain that rights don’t come in bunches. Rights come as individuals, they come from a God, and they come as each individual has a right to life and liberty.” This is a good statement, but it didn’t answer Santorum’s comment directly. That said, Santorum’s comment was apropos of nothing to begin with. To assume that Santorum was against individual rights was as good an interpretation as any.

Emotionally, though, Santorum’s comment did seem to make sense. Ron Paul is for individualism, therefore he must be against family. Rick Santorum gets to be the white knight defending family values. By the time anyone realizes that Santorum was speaking gibberish, the debate has moved on to newer, more interesting gibberish.

Whatever you think about John F. Kennedy, to distort his memory in the manner Rick Santorum does is a disservice to our society. The famous speech he gave in Houston to a group of Protestant ministers is a reminder today that people of different faiths can put aside their differences and come together politically. Santorum, in contrast, takes the low road by deceiving others and creating artificial religious and political divisions. In this, Santorum is certainly not imitating Christ. The American people deserve better than Rick Santorum.


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