When Rick Santorum appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Feb. 26, the questions for him were pretty much what one would expect. Host George Stephanopoulos asked the presidential candidate about his stands on education, the economy and the war in Afghanistan.
But the next topic was a little different. Stephanopoulos ran a video clip of Santorum speaking at a Catholic college in New Hampshire last October. During his remarks there, the former Pennsylvania senator bluntly challenged John F. Kennedy’s support for church-state separation.
Santorum said that earlier in his career he read Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech supporting “absolute” separation of church and state “and I almost threw up.”
After the clip, Stephanopoulos asked a simple question, “Why did it make you throw up?”
Replied Santorum, “Because the first line, first substantive line, in the speech says, ‘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 candidate continued. “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.”
Continued Santorum, “[T]o say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”
Because these remarks came on a widely watched national television program and because Santorum at the time was running neck and neck with Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, they ignited a national debate on the proper relationship between religion and government.
Religious Right forces were quick to come to Santorum’s defense.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “What concerns Santorum – and other religious conservatives – is Kennedy’s insistence that leaders shouldn’t base their decisions on faith but on personal conviction. That goes beyond the institutional separation of church and state to something far more menacing: a separation of truth and morality from the public square. What Kennedy described – and President Obama now embraces – is a society where people don’t acknowledge God or His role in informing their consciences.”
Albert Mohler Jr., a prominent Religious Right columnist and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said, “Santorum is a Catholic who often sounds, perhaps by intention, like an evangelical…. In terms of the political context, we share a common space.”
But other commenters were less than pleased with Santorum’s take.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, niece of the late president, said Santorum badly distorted her uncle’s views on religion and government. JFK, she said, certainly supported church-state separation, but didn’t want to exclude religious people from public life.
“Either Santorum doesn’t know his American history or he is purposefully rewriting it,” she asserted in a Washington Post op-ed. “How can he seriously imagine that Kennedy, a person who got down on his knees each night to pray, who gave his time and money to win tough primaries in states with strong anti-Catholic traditions, who challenged us to live our Christianity by ending racial hatred, somehow lacked the courage of faith or tried to exclude people of faith from government and politics?”
Townsend noted that religious voices are plentiful in American political life but they can’t expect to dominate the process.
“In 2012,” she said, “people of many faiths are running for office – Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, my own godson, Joseph Kennedy – and one can disagree with their policies while respecting their religious views. Bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis and imams lobby Congress and state legislatures on various issues. They have a voice. They just don’t always win every election or argument. Welcome to democracy.”
Townsend said her real worry is not Santorum, but the 28 percent of Americans who tell pollsters that they think church-state separation should be abolished.
“Santorum is encouraging division and intolerance,” she added. “The subtext of his remarks is that America should be a conservative religious nation – and that Kennedy was denying it. Well, he was.”
Some scholars took a similar position to Townsend’s.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman, a professor of history at Western Connecticut State University, said Santorum is wrong to attack church-state separation as part of the “objectives and vision of our country.”
Gutzman, author of the new book James Madison and the Making of America, said Madison supported a wholesome distance between religion and government.
“The chief craftsman of America’s tradition of church-state separation, Madison, disagreed with Santorum,” said Gutzman in a guest post for the Washington Post’s Political Bookworm blog. “He developed at great length over more than 50 years his belief in religious freedom. Never again in America should Virginia whip Baptists or Massachusetts hang Quakers. The church should form no part of the state.”
Gutzman said Santorum is also wrong to charge Kennedy with attempting to expel faith from political life.
“Kennedy invoked Madison in explaining that presidents should neither impose religion nor be accountable to religious figures – in Kennedy’s case, the pope,” observed Gutzman. “For Madison, the separation of church and state was simply that: not that John Jay, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, or any of the other devout politicians of the Revolutionary era must abandon politics, but that they must not impose their religion on others through the instrumentality of the state.”
Some academics argued that religious conservatives ought to embrace church-state separation because it’s good for religion and in keeping with the conservative vision of smaller government and a vibrant marketplace.
Jim Burkee, an associate history professor at Concordia University Wisconsin, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod school, said Santorum’s claim that JFK introduced church-state separation into American life is erroneous. Thomas Jefferson, he said, spoke of a church-state wall 150 years earlier.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Burkee argued that religion in America has thrived as a result.
“The steady strength of America’s Christian denominations,” he observed, “is their existence in a religious marketplace where, as religious scholar Martin Marty argues, they have consistently had to adapt to a changing cultural and spiritual marketplace or die…. Christianity does well when the state stays out of its business and allows this marketplace of ideas to thrive. Historically, it has thrived in the face of benign or even oppositional states, from Imperial Rome to modern China. And it’s strange that so many conservative Christians – people who typically defend a free marketplace and oppose government overreach – don’t get this.
“When the state and religion become intertwined,” Burkee concluded, “religion suffers.”
Santorum even faced some criticism from his political allies. When the candidate appeared on right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham’s radio show, he probably expected a warm welcome. Instead, she gave him a lecture on his choice of language.
“I mean, as a Catholic, [Kennedy is] a revered president of the United States, assassinated,” said Ingraham. “I probably wouldn’t have gone down that road with JFK and ‘I was going to throw up.’ We generally don’t want to hear presidential candidates talking about throwing up at all in any context.”
Santorum said he “would have to agree with that” and added, “I wish that I had that particular line back.” But he continued to blast JFK for allegedly fomenting the “privatization of faith.”
In a presidential campaign in which candidates and issues have careened wildly across the national stage, the Santorum-sparked debate over church-state separation may soon be forgotten. But the deep-rooted discussion it reflects about what kind of place America should be is certain to continue.