Rick Santorum was defending himself when he responded to George Stephonopoulus on ABC’s This Week: “To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes (me) throw up.”
Stephonopoulus had given Santorum an opportunity to renounce an old statement about Kennedy; instead Santorum doubled down. It was the culmination of a week of media scrutiny of religious statements made throughout his political career.
On election night, tongue-wagging pundits suggested that Santorum’s attack on Kennedy caused him to lose the Catholic vote to Mitt Romney in Michigan.
“Rick Santorum has to be wondering where he would be tonight if he hadn’t attacked John F. Kennedy,” MSNBC anchor and liberal Catholic Lawrence O’Donnell said, ridiculing Santorum for attacking a popular former president.
Santorum’s line predictably blew up in his face, but on the day of the Michigan primary, a humiliated Santorum repented. “I wish I had that particular line back,” he admitted to fellow Catholic and conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, when asked about the “throw up” line.
Santorum clearly wanted the juvenile “throw up” part of his statement back, but what he didn’t want back was his criticism of Kennedy. Throughout his public life, Santorum gave several speeches on the issue, blaming the philosophy behind Kennedy’s speech for the secularism that dominates political life today.
In December of 2010, Santorum told Thomas More College of Liberal Arts students that, “Kennedy’s attempt to reassure Protestants that the Catholic Church would not control the government and suborn its independence, advanced a philosophy of strict separation that would create a purely secular public square cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths,” Santorum stated, arguing that Kennedy, “took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to shield the government from religion.”
By confessing “an absolute separation of Church and State,” Santorum reminded the students, Kennedy chose, “not just to dispel fear, but to expel faith,” after doubts were raised about whether or not his administration would be subject to the papacy.
Liberal Catholics were bewildered by Santorum’s attack on Kennedy, but more importantly they were upset that he challenged their philosophy. He did so by attacking their favorite Catholic hero, who Santorum argues, was anything but heroic in matters of faith.
As a prominent United States senator, Santorum heard a different call. In 2003 he gave a speech to the graduating class of Christendom College, cheerfully challenging them to be “radical” and a “rebel” against the prevailing popular culture.
At this point, Santorum was already under fire for his comments about gay marriage and for sponsoring a controversial bill banning partial birth abortion. In spite of the critics, he paraphrased Mother Theresa reminding them that, “God does not call on us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.”
During the speech, Santorum marveled at Thomas More’s writings about loving one’s enemies, as he sat imprisoned in the London tower, spurned by his colleagues.
“We are all called to love one another, even people who disagree with us and hate us for what we believe,” he said. “This is a gift that comes only from God, so please ask him for it.”
“If you’re like me, you’ll need it,” he joked to the audience. “Frequently.”
Santorum is one of the rare modern political figures that chooses Thomas More as his model, rather than Kennedy.
Liberal Catholics who cling to Kennedy’s Catholic legacy are no longer reassuring wary Protestants about their loyalty to America, as Kennedy did. Today, they use his legacy to champion values directly opposed to their Catholic faith.
More recently, these Catholics have given up on the principle of religious liberty itself, as the heated battle over the contraception mandate continues.
Santorum chooses More, an English saint who defied King Henry VIII for declaring himself head of the Church rather than the pope. When the king insisted on a divorce, interpreting his faith as he saw fit, More rightly recognized it as an unacceptable attack on the institution of marriage.
More’s heroic actions led to rejection by his colleagues, a lengthy imprisonment in the tower of London, and finally execution. This is why the church has canonized Thomas More as a saint, and today English Catholics can be proud of his unwavering principles and courage in a tumultuous era.
Santorum is no saint, but his choice to emulate More by fearlessly defending moral values and virtue is praiseworthy. His choice, however, means he will suffer further persecution and be a political martyr for his beliefs.
Santorum will probably fail to win the Republican nomination, but his legacy of courageous citizenship will only grow at a time when religious liberty is under attack. Perhaps he will inspire a second generation of American Catholic politicians as Kennedy did for his generation.