The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com.
Has the United States of America experienced a decline in moral courage? I’m not here to deliver a liberal-leftist “blame America first” tirade. This is just a simple observation on the current state of American political conversation.
It occurred to me when Former Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican, repeated last Sunday (2/26/12) a comment he made in an address to a New Hampshire audience in October 2011. He said that John F. Kennedy's September 12, 1960 speech on the separation of church and state to the Baptist members of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association made him want to “throw up.”
Mr. Santorum went on: “And if you read President Kennedy’s text … there were some things that triggered in my opinion the privatization of faith and I think that’s a bad thing.” What made Santorum want to spew? When Kennedy said, early in his speech, “I believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute.”
Separation of church and state – or what Mr. Santorum calls the “privatization of faith” – is it a bad thing? To be fair, in 1960 the Catholic who became President was facing real anti-Catholic bigotry in an America still in the throes of racial bigotry. This is why Kennedy felt it necessary to address the Baptist group (a church that actually owned tens of thousands of slaves prior to the Civil War) to promise that the Pope would not make policy.
Is Mr. Santorum now reneging on Kennedy’s promise? Can religious faith be separated from political actions? Kennedy seems to have said yes over 50 years ago – but he was, after all, a politician trying to get elected.
Come to think of it, so is Mr. Santorum. And while I wouldn’t put it past some politicians to say such things just for the sport of watching liberal heads explode, Mr. Santorum’s religious views seem to be inscribed into his character like the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God on two tablets.
Excuse me while I take two tablets! If Mr. Santorum had bothered to read the rest of candidate Kennedy’s 1960 speech, and take it to heart, we wouldn’t be in the cultural war we are in right now. He wouldn’t be battling against basic women’s health care. He wouldn’t care if gay people married or adopted children. And his name might not have been redefined by those he has reviled.
In 1960, Kennedy said things so sensible that they could have been said even in 2012:
[W]e have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election… – 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 bills, the families forced to give up their farms – an America with too many slums, with too few schools... These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues – for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured – perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.
Santorum's response (on ABC's “This Week” interview program): “I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute ... 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 ... to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up.”
So this is the kind of America Mr. Santorum believes in?
Not only did he completely, and perhaps intentionally, miss Mr. Kennedy’s point, but he went out of his way to mischaracterize church-state separation – even to misunderstand the role of President. Of course your values influence how you behave in public. But as president you are head of government and head of state: you must act on behalf of all Americans, not just Catholic Americans or even Christian Americans. And that is precisely why you cannot let narrow, sectarian principles inform the execution of the secular laws of these secular United States. To do otherwise is to subvert the very office Mr. Santorum wishes to hold. John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, keenly understood this; Rick Santorum, another Roman Catholic, apparently does not.
Mr. Santorum’s view was seconded on Wednesday by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who asked rhetorically if “authentic religious beliefs can be isolated from an individual’s total worldview.” Mohler charged that President Kennedy’s take on religion in public life was “marginalizing citizens with deep religious convictions.”
Mr. Mohler and Mr. Santorum are wrong. With an overwhelming demographic majority in the United States, and tax laws and other public benefits flowing into church coffers and church pews, the “marginalizing,” in fact, runs the other way. Mr. Mohler and Mr. Santorum are saying that anything short of allowing religious leaders to dictate secular policy is anti-religious. They are saying, “you’re a bigot for not letting me be a bigot.”
This country faces some real problems – even 50-year-old problems. And it takes no courage to distract us from them. I believe Mr. Santorum’s religious views are sincere. I applaud any politician with a spine. He is who he is, not who he pretends to be. Mr. Santorum went down to defeat recently in the Michigan and Arizona primaries. While it may have been admirable to be defeated being who you are, if who you are is a religious bigot… I hope Americans will see that moral courage is not on display in this year’s presidential election. Mr. Santorum, you are no Jack Kennedy.
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: John Mill - Courage To Distract Us