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What Rick Santorum Doesn’t Understand About John Kennedy: View

February 28, 2012

Source: College of St Mary Magdalen

Source: College of St Mary Magdalen

In a famous speech 52 years ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said he believed that “the separation of church and state is absolute,” and promised that as a Roman Catholic, he would not take orders from the pope.

Thanks in part to that speech, Rick Santorum didn’t need to devote even half a second’s thought to whether his own Roman Catholicism might be a handicap in running for president. It simply isn’t. Yet Santorum says reading Kennedy’s speech “makes me throw up.”

This is a vivid image. The whole subject of vomiting is one most politicians would just as soon stay away from. So give Santorum credit for guts. Well, perhaps “guts” is not the best word. But give him credit.

Having done so, we have to wonder: Is Santorum reading the same speech we’re reading? He asks, “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?” But the United States is not that kind of country, and Kennedy’s point was close to the opposite of Santorum’s summary. We are a country whose Constitution prohibits any “religious test” for public office. The very point of Kennedy’s speech was that he, as a Catholic, had as much right to be in “the public square” as any Protestant or nonbeliever.

In fact, the only Americans who are effectively excluded from running for president because of popular prejudice against them would be “people of nonfaith,” as Santorum calls them.

Santorum is tapping into one of the truly puzzling fantasies of our politics in recent years: the apparently widespread belief that Christians -- Catholic and Protestant -- are an oppressed group, being crushed by the forces of secularization in places like Washington and Hollywood. In fact, not only do Christians constitute the vast majority of American citizens, but the United States also has the highest percentage of regularly practicing believers in the developed world. Three- quarters of Americans tell pollsters that they pray at least once a week, two-fifths say they attend a house of worship every week (the vast majority of them Christian), and more than four- fifths of Americans self-identify with some religious denomination.

Furthermore, we have a national culture far more steeped in religion than other countries. More ceremonies that open with a prayer, more concessions by the majority to minority religious customs (such as keeping kosher or stopping your work to roll out a carpet and pray to Allah several times a day), more references to God in speeches by politicians and business executives.

The belief that Christianity is under attack is another example -- possibly the reductio ad absurdum example -- of the central role that claims of victimization and the taking of umbrage play in American politics. If you’re not a victim, offended at something somebody said or did, you’re nobody. It’s a testament to the way the public square has been opened up (by multiracial Barack Obama, by Mormon Mitt Romney, and by Jewish Joe Lieberman) that a Catholic like Santorum is now the spokesman for a brand of cultural exclusivity that for centuries was defined in part by its loathing of Papists and its attempts to restrict their rights.

It’s true that religious values inform many people’s views on a topic such as abortion, and sometimes other people suggest that these views are for that reason invalid. These other people are wrong. People of faith have every right to participate in the public debate, and they have every right to express views that derive from religious belief. But when these views are challenged, they do not have the right to accuse their opponents of bias against religion.

Kennedy made it all sound a bit too easy in his famous speech. There is private life and public life. There are religious issues and secular issues, religious institutions and secular institutions. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he said. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”

No one just “happens” to be a Catholic, or a Jew or a Protestant or a Muslim or a nonbeliever -- at least, not a devout one. It goes to the core of who you are. And “who you are” is a legitimate question for voters when you’re running for president.

The freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment is famously double-edged. Government must walk a narrow path between policies that “establish” religion and policies that hinder its “free exercise.” The Supreme Court hasn’t always been a model of clarity about where that path goes. But the notion that religion has been driven out of public life is absurd. When Santorum says, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” it is a vision of America that is very different from ours.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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