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Robert Slayton

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Rick Santorum, Radical Catholic

Posted: 03/13/2012 2:38 pm

In the twentieth century, America experienced two Roman Catholic candidates for president from the major parties. Together they established a tradition -- long and honorable, for what it meant to hold that faith and be a politician at the highest level.

Al Smith, the Democrat's nominee in 1928, was the epitome of a traditional Catholic. Of immigrant Irish and Italian heritage, his faith was that of the old country, and the idea of missing Mass on Sunday was impossible; his grandson, Father Arthur Smith, felt his ancestor "would die" before he would commit such a sin.

Smith was also the greatest defender of his religion in the history of American politics. When he spoke in Oklahoma City, and the Klan burnt crosses as his train entered the state, Smith declared that bigots who practiced religious discrimination were neither American nor Christian. He talked to his audience, employing terms of the faith he grew up with and devoutly practiced, "There is no greater mockery...today than the burning of the Cross...by those people who are spreading this propaganda...while the Christ they are supposed to adore, love, and venerate...taught the holy, sacred writ of brotherly love." In the Atlantic, he uttered "a fervent prayer that never again in this land will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God."

Yet Smith recognized, and resolutely agreed with, a separation of religion and government. Writing words that would, "summarize my creed as an American Catholic," Smith affirmed how, unequivocally, "I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the strict enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

This was no line to curry favor during an election. Rather, it was part of his fundamental belief structure, the notion that church and government stood apart, and that as the state took care of its citizens, religion had to stand aside. When the pastor of St. James parish, the beloved church Smith attended from birth until he was an old man, asked the politician to squash fire department citations, the then assemblyman refused. Smith had led the committee investigating safety and health conditions after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, so he explained that children might die if the state did not have its way and the conditions were not corrected.

At another point during the Triangle hearings, Smith again revealed how he felt about the church and reform. A Republican member, Robert Dowling, also a Catholic, objected to the new, proposed fire codes, on the grounds that the number of citizens who died in fires represented only "an infinitesimal proportion of the population."

A third member, Mary Drier, pounced heatedly. She declared that Dowling was referring to "men and women. They were human souls! It was a hundred percent for them!" In summing up, Smith chided his co-religionist with sarcasm, as he mockingly observed, "Good Catholic doctrine, Robert."

Smith's positions were cemented into tradition by John Kennedy in 1960, when he told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source." These quotes came from the fourth and fifth paragraphs of a formidable speech, right up front, an indication of how important these statements were in defining the candidate's beliefs.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, recently explained that he "almost threw up" when he read Kennedy's speech. Continuing his argument, he told a reporter, "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."

Al Smith and John Kennedy, whose religion was tested in the most fiery of political fights in the twentieth century, created a tradition, one that recognized how different religion and government were, and that each had to remain paramount in its own sphere. It is Santorum who is the usurper, who seeks to overthrow those longstanding beliefs for a new one. In a party that extols original intent, Santorum is the Catholic radical, seeking to substitute a new position for ideas forged, and then ratified, by politicians who had to stand up for their religion when it was an awful test to do so.