Rick Santorum Isn't Thinking Critically About History
You'd think that John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston to a group of Protestant ministers which effectively defused Kennedy's Catholicism as a campaign issue would be referenced favorably by this year's GOP crop. Of the four remaining candidates, two are Catholics, one is Mormon, and there's only a single Protestant left in the race (Ron Paul is a Baptist).
But Rick Santorum -- himself a Catholic -- said in a speech early on in the current campaign cycle that Kennedy's speech "made me want to throw up." When George Stephanopoulos asked him about his remarks yesterday, Santorum offered this defense:
The first substantive line in the speech was "I believe in an 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. This is the First Amendment. 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.’ Go on and read the speech ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’ It was an absolutist doctrine that was foreign at the time of 1960....
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 and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.
Joan Walsh has a pretty effective takedown of Santorum's remarks over at Salon. If you'll bear with me, I'll quote Walsh (no relation, I assure you) quoting Kennedy (the full speech by JFK, incidentally, can be read here):
Of course, there’s no place in Kennedy’s speech where he said “people of faith are not allowed in the public square,” or anything close to that, and Santorum’s saying it three times doesn’t make it true. Here’s one key passage:
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; 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.
It is absolutely clear that Kennedy accepts “people of faith in the public square” – his goal is to make a place for people of every faith in our public life. Kennedy doesn’t even go as far as Christian right hero Reagan, who actually said the separation of church and state protects the right of non-believers, too.
Now, Walsh concludes by calling Santorum a liar for mischaracterizing Kennedy's remarks. I wouldn't go that far. Santorum clearly believes his analysis of Kennedy's speech, though, as Joan (I'm switching over to her first name, otherwise I feel like I'm writing about myself in the third person) demonstrates, Kennedy was not saying religion does not belong in the public square.
Santorum's big problem is with context. I echo his call to actually read dthe full text of Kennedy's speech because it does provide rich context. Kennedy starts out by jabbing at the Eisenhower administration for losing Cuba and falling behind in the space race. He speaks admiringly of other countries with Catholic presidents but officially pluralist or secular states: De Valera's Ireland (to be fair, Kennedy could have used a history lesson himself one this one), De Gaulle's France, and Adenaur's Germany -- incidentally, when was the last time in this election cycle that a candidate spoke admiringly of a foreign leader?
Perhaps most importantly, Santorum seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that Kennedy gave his speech explicitly to rebut criticism that he would use his office to give preferential treatment to his church and that in 1960 Protestantism had a particularly important political role in the public square (the SPLC, anyone?). He's not thinking critically about history.