Rick’s Degrees of Separation

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.

Stephen M. Klugewicz


Dr. Stephen M. Klugewicz is headmaster of Regina Luminis Academy, a private, Catholic, classical school in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Klugewicz earned his B.A. in history at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in American history at the University of Alabama, Tusacloosa. He has served as director of education at the National Constitution Center and at the Bill of Rights Institute and has also been the executive director of the Collegiate Network, the Robert and Marie Hansen Foundation, and Generation Life.

  • rusty

    Santorum is more of the same, just like Gingrich and Romney, he is a Bush-Obama clone. Nothing will change under Santorum.

    • Pargontwin

      As long as we allow “career politicians” in the Senate and House, nothing will ever change.  Their eyes will always be on the next election, and that will be the focus of everything they say and do, rather than the good of the nation.  Our so-called “representatives” no longer represent us, but only their own interests.

  • Carolyn McKinney

    Thanks for the reminder about the important and long history of the separation of church and state. It was to protect not only the religious of all sects, but to protect the churches against the corrupting influence of the State. 

    However, it should also be noted that “separation of church and state” was to prevent the establishment of the institutional church. It in no way meant that that religious people were to keep their religious views private or that the public sphere should be totally scrubbed of all religious views and religious influence. Unfortunately, all that those knee-jerk social conservatives see in the history of the separation idea is the recent attempts by the Left to scrub the public square, and instead of seeking to re-invigorate a proper understanding of separation of church and state, they have been seeking to undermine the idea entirely.

  • Pargontwin

    What the Constitution says is simply that there will be no established religion.  Period.  It’s what organizations like the ACLU have done that has made “separation of church and state” into such a hot-button issue.

  • Carl

    Words and deeds:
    Klugewicz said “What Kennedy meant by that is not entirely clear”Kennedy’s words, “separation of church and state is absolute.”

    Kennedy’s deed, his support to remove public school prayer.
    JFK meant what he said!
    JFK supported the Supreme Court decisions removing God from
    public Schools:

    1962 Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp

    These were nondenominational prayers and were NOT compulsory


    President John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic
    President, urged respect for the court’s decision in Engel: “We have
    in this case a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves. And I would
    think that it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can
    pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more
    fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the
    lives of our children.”

    • Carl

      So JFK said leave your Faith and God at the door steps of our homes and Churches.

      Shut your mouth!  How dare you preach the good news of the gospel in public!

      This is antithetical to our founders belief and First Amendment! FACTS

  • Carl

    JFK 1960 Speech “to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress, on my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools” 
    Sir, you are absolutely WRONG!

  • Carl

    James Madison, Federalist 51, author of the US Constitution
    Last paragraph of Fed 51 paraphrased, Madison pointed out that the checks and balances of our republic and the free voice of all denominations would restrict any one sect from establishing itself as dominate in the public sphere.   That because none these various denominations could  establish themselves over the other it would leave them to pursue the common good between them and the nature law that they share!  Madison was encouraging religious speech in public, not banning it, in fact this speech protected freedom!

    JFK antithetical 1960 speech said the polar opposite, by removing religious free speech we can limit or stop any religious sect from establishment. 

    But as Justice Potter Stewart said, “It led not to true neutrality with respect to religion, but to the establishment of a religion of secularism.”   

  • To the commenter below: The government is now so huge, so intrusive, and so flush with our money, and its commissions and departments and bureaus are so numerous and so nebulously conceived, that it is impossible that our representatives can “represent” us in any meaningful sense.  It’s as if we were to send our favorite leviathan-tamers to go take care of the leviathan.  The problem is not so much that we’re sending the wrong tamers, but that there’s a leviathan in the first place — and it cannot possibly be tamed.

    If “separation of church and state” means that the state must be indifferent as to religion or irreligion, well, I don’t think you’d have gotten more than one or two of the signatories of the Constitution to go along with that.  But that is exactly what the secularists mean by the phrase.  They are wrong, flat wrong.

    • Carl

      Irreligious hypothetical, with hindsight, I like to think that our founders are happy that slaves, savages, and yes the irreligious have the same inalienable rights now as they achieved then. And satisfied that they provided the means that accomplished it.

  • Carl

    First, JFK should have blown up the liberal false premise that the Church in Rome in 1960 or at any other time wanted to dictate Catholic teaching into public policy. 

    “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” JFK 1960

    Religious pressures? Doesn’t our faith form our conscience? We can agree on dogma not becoming “dictates.” JFK went too far. Santorum acknowledged on Foxnews the point that JFK had to defend himself against anit-Catholic bigots—he went too far.

  • Carl

    I think Ann Couter nails down Santorum’s problem. “Even when
    I agree with Rick Santorum, listening to him argue the point almost makes me
    change my mind.” And then Ann finishes up her 2/29 piece with, “The
    problem is not Santorum’s conservative positions, it’s that he can’t defend
    them.” But I would say the same for Romney whom she supports and he’s got a poor
    conservative record as a politician from Mass. to top it all off. Sometimes it
    appears to me we expect perfection in our politicians in this media “Rock Star”
    age. Certainly our current President got way too much credit for being a rock
    star—much of that false image has now dimmed under the light of truth.  And it’s interesting that Mr. Klugewicz gives
    JFK a pass from being associated with the “secular Left” when it was them who
    made him the first media rock star president—remember Nixon’s nervous sweaty
    brow and how JFK looked and sounded soooooooo goooooooood?

    How can you possibly separate JFK from the “secular Left”
    when he’s clearly the partron saint of this ideological Camelot? 

  • Carl

    Klugewicz said “What Kennedy meant by that is not entirely clear”
    Kennedy’s words, “separation of Church and state is absolute.”

    Where do these words come from,  hmm?

    Everson v. Board of Education 1947
    Justice Hugo Black inserted these redefined words from Thomas Jefferson seemingly harmless in his support for the state of NJ funding Catholic Students riding public buses to parochial schools. This was a swell thing coming from a former KKK member in the 1920s.  JFK was just entering Congress at the time. 

    Infamous Houston Speech 1960

    Engel v. Vitale 1962
    Outlawed state-sponsored prayer in public schools. The first big payoff of this new “Separation of Church and State” definition! JFK outwardly supported this decision using the exact words he used often himself.

    JFK shoot dead in 1963
    He clearly understood what the words separation of Church and state meant!

    Then the almost absolute “right to privacy” in Griswold v. Conn. in 1965 was the next shoe to drop. Legalizing contraception. Both of JFK’s US Supreme Court nominees voted for this and ended the Comstock laws completely.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    I simply cannot reconcile the separation of Church and State, along with many other “constitutional” principles, with the absolute monarchy of our Once and Future King Jesus Christ and His Vicar the Pope.

    Either we believe the fullness of Christianity is in the One Holy Catholic And Apostolic Church, or we give in to the false freedom of Protestants and Free Masons.  Which will it be?

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