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Separating church and state, Kennedy and Santorum

Rick Santorum in Livonia Mich
It's a tribute to John F. Kennedy that his comments about religion during the 1960 presidential campaign make current presidential candidate Rick Santorum want to throw up.

Kennedy's Catholicism was an issue for some voters, who evidently feared that Kennedy would put the pope's dictates above the American people's. That prompted Kennedy to declare, in a speech to a group of Protestant ministers two months before the 1960 election:

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....

I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

This declaration of independence from the Vatican was so persuasive, the idea of any Catholic candidate being beholden to the pope today seems ridiculous. Just ask Santorum, a Catholic who's never had to venture into Baptist country to reassure nervous clergymen. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has cited Kennedy's words to help convince voters that his Mormon faith is not a legitimate issue either.

Nevertheless, Santorum argues that Kennedy went too far. Sunday on ABC's "This Week,"  Santorum explained why Kennedy's stance gives him nausea:

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 antithetical to the objectives and the vision of our country.

This is the 1st Amendment. The 1st 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 abhorrent at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas, 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out.

Perhaps Santorum ought to read the speech again. Nowhere did Kennedy say that he wouldn't listen to faith-based arguments or that he'd freeze church leaders out of the White House. What he said was that the president shouldn't be beholden to the dictates of his denomination's leaders. That's fully consistent with the 1st Amendment, which not only assures the free exercise of religion but also bars Congress from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

This seems to be the same point Santorum is making, only from a very different perspective. Kennedy tried to reassure people of different faiths that their views wouldn't be dismissed simply because they weren't Catholic. Santorum is saying that religious people's views shouldn't be dismissed simply because they are religious.

That's not to say the two men approach religion and politics the same way. Kennedy, who ran as a liberal in the Franklin D. Roosevelt tradition, stressed such issues as civil rights, a higher minimum wage and healthcare for seniors. His religion expressed itself through those social policies.

Santorum wants to go the opposite direction on entitlements, freezing spending and cutting off benefits after a certain number of years. His religion expresses itself through his opposition to abortion, gay rights, federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other conservative Christian hot-buttons.

There's also a fundamental difference between arguing that no one religion ought to control governmental decisions and arguing that no faith should be excluded from them. The risk for the former is that policymakers will go too far to demonstrate their independence from the views of church leaders, particularly their own denomination's. That seems to be Santorum's complaint about Kennedy. The risk of the latter is that policymakers will align themselves too closely with the beliefs of a particular, religious segment of the population. That's the Anti-Defamation League's complaint about Santorum. In a letter to the candidate Monday, two ADL leaders wrote:

The genius of the Founding Fathers was to find a way, with the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, to protect the new nation from the kind of religious persecution that had resulted from official state religions and religious wars in Europe. They were not hostile to religion; many of them were deeply religious. Their goal was to protect individual religious liberty -- including the liberty of those in the religious minority.

As a Christian, Santorum's faith is comfortably within the American majority. I wonder how he would feel about faith and government if he were Jewish or Muslim. Or more to the point, I wonder how he would feel about a community with a large Muslim population that elected a city council that decided to open its meetings with an Islamic blessing or adopted a few ordinances based on Sharia law.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Rick Santorum addresses a local Chamber of Commerce in Livonia, Mich. Credit:  Eric Gay / Associated Press

 

 

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