Religious Liberty -- JFK v Santorum


Senator Rick Santorum sure has made his share of wild statements lately.

First, he claims that Obama wants to impose a "phony theology" on America, whatever that means. Then he subtly signals his agreement with (by failing to correct) a supporter who ridiculously claims that Obama is a secret Muslim.

But I was most intrigued by his references to a famous -- and normally widely-praised -- speech by JFK to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association -- a Baptist group  -- during the 1960 presidential campaign  (emphasis mine):

On ABC, Santorum said the Kennedy speech -- which sought to ease concerns about his faith interfering with his ability to govern -- made him sick
"What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?" Santorum said in seeking to link his interpretation of the Kennedy speech with his criticism of the Obama administration for what he calls impeding on religious freedom. 
"That makes me throw up and it should make every American who has seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you," Santorum said, later adding that imposition of government values would be "the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square."
That last part -- that JFK advocated that people of faith stay out of the public square -- is absurd on its face. The man who made the statement was himself running for the ultimate position in the public square.

JFK's speech to the Baptist ministers was partly political. Given the enormous antipathy toward Catholics, even as late as 1960, there was a need to ensure that the conservative Baptists weren't going to organize against him. But Kennedy's speech was also a rallying cry to the basic American perspective that caused the Founders to reject establishing religion in the first place.

Kennedy started by acknowledge the "religious issue" of a Catholic running for President, pointing out that there are far more important national issues to contend with than his religious affiliation (true then, true now):
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers only ninety miles off the coast of Florida -- the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power -- the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor's bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.
Kennedy then reprises a bit of our nation's uncomfortable history with religion, to show that today's religious victors become tomorrow's victims:
For, while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim -- but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.
And he throws in a bit of Texas history for good measure:

And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die when they fled here to escape religious test oaths, that denied office to members of less favored churches, when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom -- and when they fought at the shrine I visited today -- the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes and McCafferty and Bailey and Bedillio and Carey -- but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.
Where JFK and Santorum part ways is in the understanding of their office, the national interest and the culture war issues of the day:
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 dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
In case anyone still didn't get it, he winds up by making his position crystal clear, drawing a clear picture of his role as leader of the American people:
I am not the Catholic candidate for President [but the candidate] who happens also to be a Catholic.... I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.
These are lofty sentiments spoken by a man whose life of wealth and privilege had been dogged by suspicions of his ancestors' faith. They express the lived experience of transient success won against great odds and bigoted opposition. As a son of Ireland, Kennedy was bedeviled by the same forces that caused the Founders to shy away from religious tests and federal support for churches. He knew first hand, or from family memory, of the prejudice that for years had kept his clan out of the halls of power.

JFK saw how religion can be poisonous in the public space, preventing otherwise capable men and women from contributing to their society, diverting the passions of citizens from productive, cooperative work to pointless infighting and antagonisms. Given the passions that human beings attach to their faiths, there is no way to maintain a society in which one sect flourishes under government support while others stand politely by. That wasn't possible in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified, and it is not possible today.

And this is the point of view makes Rick Santorum sick?

John Kennedy may have realized the political expediency of neutralizing the rabid opposition of Baptists to his candidacy. But he also spoke from hard-won experience -- that those who raise religion as a cudgel to batter their opponents do so in order to distract voters from crucial issues that are common to all. In 1960, Cold War missiles could fall with impunity on Catholic, Protest, Jew, Muslim and atheist alike. In 2012, an unregulated economy is sinking all boats -- the JP2, the Mitzvah, the John Calvin and the SS Madalyn Murray O'Hair; the uninsured come from all sects and races; and greed pulls funds away from roads and bridges that serve conservative and liberal believers alike.

What makes me sick is the constant raising of the specter of sectarian religiosity, which builds no bridges, heals no sick and brings no justice.

Read the speech in its entirety. It's a classic of rhetoric and persuasion.