Separation Obfuscation: Why Cardinal Dolan And Richard Land Are No John F. Kennedys

John F. Kennedy was willing to say that if the public interest clashed with his religious beliefs, he would put the public interest first.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City was on “Face the Nation” yesterday and managed to pull off quite a feat. He said he agrees with President John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 gave a famous speech calling for “absolute” separation of church and state, and with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who says that same JFK speech made him want to “throw up.”

I suspect that Dolan actually agrees more with Santorum – he’s just smart enough not to go on national television and say it.

Appearing on the same CBS program was Richard Land, head lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention. Like Dolan, Land endorses church-state separation in public. He sometimes even invokes historic Baptist figures like John Leland, who helped build the church-state wall. On “Face the Nation,” Land brought up Roger Williams and called church-state separation “our unique contribution.”

But of course anyone can go on television and make any kind of statement. It’s what happens after Dolan and Land leave the television studio that counts. And here their actions tell a different story.

Dolan, aided and abetted by the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, wants all of us to pay taxes to support his church’s private schools. Land also advocates tax funding of religious schools through vouchers. (And by the way, they want this funding in the form of a blank check – no significant government oversight, please.)

Dolan and Land want tax funding of various “faith-based” social services, again with no oversight. Remarkably, the bishops have gone so far as to argue that the government’s failure to extend this aid is a form of religious discrimination!

Dolan and Land want their theology to determine government national policy on reproductive issues, marriage equality and the civil rights of LGBT people. Both men seek government policies that will make it possible for the Catholic Church to impose its restrictive view on birth control on millions of Americans, many of them non-Catholics, through church-related institutions like hospitals and colleges that receive massive amounts of tax aid.

Land has even rhapsodized about some future period where evangelicals and Catholic join forces and achieve victory in the “culture wars” Luckily for the nation, that seems unlikely to happen. Most American Catholics don’t agree with the church hierarchy’s views on social issues, and polls show that younger evangelicals are breaking away from Land’s old guard on issues like gay rights.

Does that mean we can be complacent? No way. In a country where 50 percent is considered a good turnout on Election Day, a determined minority of theocrats can call the shots if the rest of us aren’t diligent.

Dolan and Land claim to support church-state separation, and Dolan even says he appreciates JFK’s famous speech. There is a passage from that speech that is often quoted: “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.”

That’s good stuff. But there’s another section of the speech that isn’t quoted as often that also needs to be heard and heeded: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Kennedy was willing to say that if the public interest clashed with his religious beliefs, he would put the public interest first. Dolan and Land don’t agree. They believe a politician should put theological interests first. Therein lies the crucial difference between JFK’s interpretation of church-state separation and the version embraced by Dolan and Land. The latter protects us from a state-established church but not much else.

As a nation, we have endorsed Kennedy’s more expansive vision. We toss it aside for the Dolan/Land interpretation at our peril.