So far, there has been just one Catholic president of the United States (that would be John Fitzgerald Kennedy, hereafter JFK). If he realizes his current ambition, Richard John “Rick” Santorum (hereafter RJS), would be the second.
JFK did indeed say that he believes “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” The politics — and the poetry — of JFK’s various utterances on the topic are easily apparent, but, taken in full context, JFK’s public thoughts on church and state have held up remarkably well.
RJS did indeed say that he “almost threw up” after reading JFK’s “absolute” utterance.Although the politics (and lack of poetry) behind Santorum’s remark are also apparent, it was a really dumb thing to say. Santorum seems to realize that and yesterday, on the Laura Ingraham radio show, he expressed regret about it. Good move.
But not before he had doubled and tripled down on the original dumb remark. Pressed about it Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Santorum said:
“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up.”
And on “Meet the Press” RJS interpreted JFK’s “absolute” remark as meaning that “the only thing you’re allowed to bring to the public square are secular ideas, not motivated by faith.”
I’ve mentioned several times my impression that Santorum is more factual and logical on behalf of his candidacy than most of his rivals for the Repub nomination. But on this one, he jumped the shark.
The idea that separation of church and state means that only atheists and agnostics are allowed to speak about public policy is ridiculous. Almost every president has been overtly religious and I can’t recall any openly atheistic candidate ever having much success (although clearly, if the country decided to elect an atheist, that would be constitutional).
Kennedy commented many times on his vision of the proper relationship between not only church and state but between a president’s religious convictions and his role as a policymaker with power of those who don’t share his religious convictions.
My friend Prof. Joel Goldstein of St. Louis University Law School, who often writes about presidential history, wrote a piece for History News Network demonstrating that JFK often invoked religious ideas and teachings in his public statements as president and developed a clear, nuanced ethic about the interplay between faith and politics which, I assure you, is NOT that “the only thing you’re allowed to bring to the public square are secular ideas, not motivated by faith.”
Goldstein’s piece is worth a full read. But if you don’t click through, here’s a taste:
“Contrary to Santorum’s mischaracterization, Kennedy never sought to banish religion from public life. In his inaugural address, delivered four months later, he swore his presidential oath ‘before ‘Almighty God” and proclaimed that ‘the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.’ Kennedy implored all ”to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to ‘undo the heavy burdens … (and) let the oppressed go free,” and he closed by ‘asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’
Less than three weeks later, Kennedy argued that America was founded on two interdependent propositions: ‘a strong religious conviction, and … a recognition that this conviction could flourish only under a system of freedom.’
In a broadcast address on civil rights in June 1963, Kennedy said the nation was ‘confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.’ The previous day, in a commencement speech at American University on arms control, Kennedy invoked ‘the Scriptures’ for the teaching that ‘when a man’s ways please the Lord … he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.’
Kennedy understood that religious conviction had a place in civic discourse and in shaping attitudes on public policy. But he rightly believed that such discussion must occur in a pluralistic context that accepted the legitimacy and equality of various religions, that rejected religious tests as a qualification for public office, and that encouraged public officials and citizens to discharge their political responsibilities based on the public interest.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of progress (by which I mean only progress in the ability of voters to see past religious identities, grudges and stereotypes) that in yesterday’s Michigan primary, Mitt Romney (who if nominated, would be the first Mormon to receive a major party nomination) received the votes of 44 percent of Catholics while Santorum, who is Catholic, got 37 percent of the “Catholic vote.”