There they go again. The mainstream media has once more dug up a statement made by Rick Santorum about religion in an attempt to paint him as a member of some sort of new, clandestine Catholic Inquisition, poised to take over the American government after the next election. He can only be stopped if free-thinking citizens unite to preserve the secular nation that those of us who live on the east and west coasts—the only ones who really matter— know and love.
This time the brouhaha centers not on Satan’s anti-Americanism but on the issue of separation of church and state. Last October, Santorum informed us—in too graphic terms—that he felt like “throwing up” after hearing John F. Kennedy’s speech of 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which the presidential candidate tried to allay the fears of his Protestant listeners about his Catholic identity. When quizzed this past Sunday by George Stephanapolous about this comment, Santorum was unapologetic, repeating the “throw up” comment and blasting Kennedy’s speech as “absolutist” in its alleged theme that “people of faith have no role in the public sphere.” Santorum also paraphrased Kennedy as declaring that “I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.”
Santorum was setting up a straw man here, for Kennedy never said any of these things in his Houston speech. For Santorum, it was good politics of course, appealing to social conservatives who rightly worry that the secular Left seeks to demonize and marginalize religious traditionalists (Santorum himself as a prime example) and who are not fond of Kennedy, whose sexual libertinism has again been brought into the public consciousness by a new tell-all book by a former White House intern.
Santorum did not have to mischaracterize Kennedy’s words, for there is much to criticize in them as written. In the Houston speech, Kennedy did say that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” What Kennedy meant by that is not entirely clear, though he went on to explain that his vision meant an America in which “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.”
If Kennedy came close here to denying that his faith would have any influence on his decisions as president, he was, for better or worse, following in an American Catholic tradition when trying to reassure the Protestant majority of Catholics’ reliability as good citizens of the republic. The Houston speech needs to be seen in this light. Just as Santorum implicitly asked us to put his speech about Satan having his eye on the United States in context (“If they want to dig up old speeches of me talking to religious groups, they can go ahead and do so”), he should extend the same courtesy to Kennedy, who was trying in Houston to reassure a skeptical audience about his bona fides as a patriotic, independent-minded American, fit for the presidency.
Santorum must also remember that the separation of church and state is a good thing for the Catholic Church, and for people of faith in general. The concept has an honorable history within the Church. Jesus Himself commanded us to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” Saint Augustine wrote of the City of Man and the City of God. This tradition was transmitted to Europe, though its meaning was the subject of heated conflict between kings and popes for centuries. With the Reformation, a separation between church and state became a prudential doctrine, as its adoption brought peace to lands torn by religious strife.
In the Protestant-dominated culture of early America, Catholics were often the champions of separation of church of state, out of self-interest if not out of principle. In 1785, Father John Carroll, soon to be chosen as the first Catholic bishop of the United States, declared that he and his co-religionists “have all smarted heretofore under the lash of an established church, and shall therefore [be] on our guard against every approach towards it.” The multiplicity of Christian sects made the doctrine a practical necessity, and many Protestants, such as James Madison, therefore also adopted the principle, whose great by-product was religious toleration.
Catholics in early America who advocated the separation of church and state and toleration were liable to be charged with religious indifferentism, or a lack of commitment to the truth of their faith. This guilt by association persists to this day. Church-state separatists are in fact viewed more dimly in our contemporary world in that they are seen as enemies of religious belief itself. I suspect that is why devout Catholics like Santorum have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the doctrine.
Social conservatives across the religious spectrum tend to downplay the concept of the separation of church and state, and many dismiss it entirely. They are fond of pointing out that the Constitution does not contain the phrase “separation of church and state,” and that the terminology about a “wall of separation” originated first in America in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Conservatives generally like to think that this proves that the Constitution contained no such idea and, consequently, the American political tradition does not.
This is a mistaken notion. Certain concepts are in the Constitution even if the phraseology we use to sum up these ideas is not. Religious Americans (of all stripes) ought to embrace the concept of church-state separation, for as John Carroll understood, it works to protect the church from the state, and in keeping the church out of state affairs, it keeps the church from being corrupted.
Santorum seems to understand half of this equation, as he is rightly sounding the alarm about the federal government’s Health and Human Service mandate, requiring Catholic organizations to provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. But he often seems too eager to use the government to promote religious ends. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state,” he said this past Sunday, “is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” In the final Republican presidential debate, Santorum tried to explain his vote for an omnibus bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood by bragging that he simultaneously promoted federally-funded abstinence programs aimed at young people. Like the idea of faith-based initiatives, Santorum needs to see that government involvement in a program not only guarantees inefficiency, inequity, and unintended consequences, but also threatens the independence and freedom of action of any institution with which it works.
Catholics who recognize the vital importance of the separation of church and state should understand that they differ with Santorum’s views in degree, not in kind. Despite the frenzied ravings of the mainstream media, we know that Santorum does not seek to establish a theocracy in America and could not if he wished. The former Senator from Pennsylvania simply needs to reassure Americans that what he is warning against is a false notion of separation of church and state, one that originated not with John F. Kennedy, but with the secular Left in academia, in the judicial system, and, yes, in the mainstream media.