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Todd Green, Ph.D.

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Rick Santorum, You're No Jack Kennedy

Posted: 02/27/2012 5:06 pm

In a 2010 speech at St. Thomas University in Houston that marked the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's famous address on religious liberty, Rick Santorum noted that "Kennedy's speech was historic because it did offer a teachable moment." Unfortunately, it does not appear that Santorum learned any significant lessons from the speech, and his most recent comments on the Sunday morning news circuit reflect that. On "Meet the Press," David Gregory showed a clip from the JFK speech and asked Santorum to respond. Santorum did so by once again denouncing Kennedy's belief that "the separation of church and state is absolute." Such a view is not in accordance with the vision of our founders, added Santorum, and it undermines the long-held American belief that faith can and must have a place in politics and the public sphere.

What Santorum's comments reveal is how little he understands the First Amendment. Perhaps this is why he is so troubled by the Kennedy speech, so troubled that he has admitted that the speech makes him want to vomit. Kennedy's speech delicately balances the two clauses of the First Amendment: the establishment clause, which prevents the government or any religious body from imposing one set of religious tenets or values (usually the majority's) onto citizens who do not embrace that religion (usually the minority); and the free exercise clause, which guarantees Americans the right to hold to the dictates of their own consciences when it comes to religion, and freely to live out and practice their religious convictions, as long as these convictions, in Thomas Jefferson's words, do not "break out into overt acts against peace and good order."

Kennedy is trying to persuade his audience that he is a true believer in religious liberty and equally committed to both clauses. This is understandable in light of the history of American religion up to that point. Protestants had long been a majority, and as of 1960, plenty of Protestants still harbored suspicions toward Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy. The Protestant fear was that a Catholic president might take orders from the Vatican and thus try to introduce a religious establishment upon an unwilling populace. Some of this fear was rooted in statements made by the Vatican in the 19th century, statements that soundly rejected the "error" that church and state should be separated. Even if such official statements from the previous century did not reflect the real views of many ordinary Catholics in Kennedy's day, Protestant suspicions toward Catholics on this question lingered.

In light of this history, Kennedy made a prudent decision in emphasizing both clauses of the First Amendment, and by all accounts, he genuinely seemed to believe in the wisdom of governing in a manner that respected both. More importantly, he understood the connection between the two, arguing that any effort by any religious or governing body "to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials" would be an infringement on the free exercise of religion. You can't truly have the free exercise of religion in a nation in which there is no protection from an establishment of religion.

This is what Santorum really doesn't understand about the First Amendment. It has two clauses; he speaks and acts as if it only has one. In fact, on ABC's "This Week," he told George Stephanopoulos that "[t]he First Amendment means the free exercise of religion and that means bringing people and their faith into the public square." Certainly Santorum inadvertently left something out? Certainly he believes that the First Amendment also means protection from an establishment of religion? Don't count on it. This is the part that is almost always missing from Santorum's political rhetoric. He has concluded that the establishment clause has no bearing on freedom of religion or on the place of religion in the public square.

We've seen the dangers of Santorum's excising of the establishment clause from the First Amendment: on abortion, contraception, gay rights, the role of women in the military, etc. To take just one example (and to take a brief respite from the contraception controversy), Santorum voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 and continues to be its most ardent supporter. He denounced the Obama administration last year for refusing to defend the act. And he has done all of this in part by appealing to the First Amendment. He believes that Americans (or at least those who share his views) should be "free" to impose their faith commitments and practices on others. Because Santorum rejects same-sex marriage on religious grounds, and because the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, his conclusion is that the prohibition of same-sex marriage is constitutionally justifiable. DOMA, he would argue, is simply the product of his and other like-minded Christians' free exercise of religion in the public square. He (and to be fair, many other lawmakers) never makes an effort to reconcile DOMA with the establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."). That's because there is nothing in his record to suggest that this is a man who has any real concern for the establishment clause. More often than not, he pretends it simply doesn't exist and that freedom of religion can be defined without it.

This is not a mistake that JFK made. JFK knew the First Amendment. He understood and articulated the importance of balancing both clauses in it. And he realized that one of the real threats to freedom of religion lay in religious and/or government bodies attempting to impose one set of religious beliefs and practices on those with a different faith or even no faith. When it comes to the question of who is the true champion of the First Amendment, what else is there to say: Rick Santorum, you're no Jack Kennedy.