Commentary: Santorum's distortion of JFK's church-state speech

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 2, 2012 

These are the days that try human souls.

It's not just that there's so much turmoil, suffering and hate in the world.

It's that the way some American politicians are abusing religion for their own gain is enough to turn the stomachs of those who consider faith a tool for good, not a weapon for winning elections.

Say what you will about President John Kennedy's personal behavior deviating from traditional Catholic morals, his 1960 speech on the relationship between church and state didn't say only heathens could enter the public square.

Rick Santorum's vomitosis-induced falsehoods about JFK ignore the dynamics of that era, when some Protestants feared that the pope would have a dictatorial hotline to a Kennedy White House.

Santorum has as much right to court voters with deeply held religious beliefs as he does to woo supporters with deep pockets.

But he needn't trample a dead president who, by becoming the highest-ranking Catholic elected in the U.S., paved the way for Santorum's run at the 2012 Republican nomination.

ABC News reported over the weekend that Santorum, also a Catholic, claimed that Kennedy said people of faith should have no voice in important public debates.

"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up," Santorum said. (

And he said this: "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."

And he said this: "Go on and read the speech, 'I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith.' It was an absolutist doctrine that was foreign at the time of 1960."

Yes, do read the speech ( or watch the video (

On Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association at the Rice Hotel and asked to be judged not on the church he attended but the America he believed in. He was countering opponents who had created the specter of Vatican tentacles extending into the Oval Office.

"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," Kennedy said.

"I believe in an America ... where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

He said he would not subvert the First Amendment's religious liberty guarantees or his faith to win the election.

He would make decisions based on "what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest." And if the two ever conflicted irreconcilably, he said, he would resign from office.

It's more sad than surprising that Santorum would exploit religion for the momentum it might generate in the GOP race.

But jumping on the Jesus bandwagon has become something of a national pastime.

How else to explain this cheesy venture: An outfit called Active Faith, started by a current and a former pro basketball player, espouses a vision of becoming "the premier Christian sports apparel brand" and giving "active Christians a fashionable way to represent their love and faith in Christ."

They're advertising $26 women's T-shirts and $32 Capri tights, and New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin is wearing their "In Jesus Name I Play" bracelet. ( Glorifying God -- or just mammon?

How is what Santorum's doing any worse?

In the context of a presidential election, an honest, enlightening discussion could be had about what a candidate's spiritual life brings to the mix of qualifications and how people of faith can engage in making their communities, states and the nation more just, peaceful and attentive to the needs of all God's creatures. It's distressing that's not even close to what's happening.

An election for president of the United States shouldn't be decided on who can spout more Bible verses, make more promises to dictate policy according to his church's tenets or insist that he's holier than thou.

Lord help us if that's what it comes to.

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