Rick Santorum and the Republicans’ Kennedy Problem

ON SEPTEMBER 12, the Democrat nominee for the 1960 Presidential election addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in a speech which begins as follows:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida — 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, and too late to the moon and outer space.

The hungry children of West Virginia were far from the only concern of the young and photogenic Senator from Massachusetts. John Kennedy made a point in the May Virginia primary of visiting the coal mines and of otherwise ingratiating himself with the folk of a state well-known for anti-Catholic bias. This “so-called religious issue” was the prospect, fearful to many, of the nation’s first Roman Catholic President — or, as Kennedy would have put it (and in fact did put it), the first President who happened to be Catholic.

This rhetorical attempt to downgrade irrational public fears over religious affiliation, by adumbrating the far more critical issues of the day, is of course self negating. The fact that Kennedy even felt it necessary to deliver this speech tells us all we need know. Anyone who doubts the relevance of this issue today may consider the many contemporary parallels. The foremost is established by the historical coincidence of the current Republican primary leader, another former Massachusetts politician and photogenic liberal with another suspicious religion.

Putting aside some other tempting echoes (“the humiliating treatment of our President,” “those who no longer respect our power,” “the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills,” etc.), we arrive at the kernel of Kennedy’s presentation, the separation of Church and State.

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 — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — 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.

Having come this far through the Republican primaries, I find myself wondering how closely this describes not only actual America but the presumptive America of 2012 candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. In recent years there has been a swell of cant along the lines that America is a Christian nation, and as anyone who follows American politics has noted, the language of to-the-finish cultural warfare is well on the rise, especially (but not only) on the right end of the ideological spectrum. Kennedy both hits and misses the target, correctly underscoring the constitutional separation of church and state while having us suppose that the principal threats are coercive in nature — the Pope imposing his will on officials and so forth. Looking at the current-day candidates, I wonder if it isn’t rather the opposite, that so many politicians today are running a conviction race whose victorious supplicant is the most pious and the most eager to surrender in all matters to ancient books and sectarian doctrine and pseudo-science.

As an exercise in contrasts, one can do no better than to cite a 2002 Catholic Online article, “Fishers of Men,” written by former Pennsylvania Representative and Senator Rick Santorum:

Like most American Catholics, I have followed the recent sex scandals in the Church with profound sympathy for victims, revulsion over priests who prey on minors and frustration at the absence of hierarchical leadership. Unlike most, I have been visited by the gift of hope; for I see in this fall an opportunity for ecclesial rebirth and a new evangelization of America. This “new evangelization,” advocated strenuously by Pope John Paul II, has the potential for restoring confidence in the priesthood while empowering all American Catholics.

The narrative arc of this excerpt, from ignominious fall to glorious resurrection, is boilerplate. I cite it to draw the reader’s attention to the phrase “a new evangelization of America,” a locution which is not only unKennedy-like but until recent years thought antithetical to American political discourse in general and the American Constitution in particular. Surveying the massive Catholic child sexual abuse scandal of the Boston archdiocese, Santorum finds a ready culprit in culture: “It is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm,” he concluded.

It is not difficult to infer a style and a substance of political leadership from Santorum’s praise of Pope John Paul II as a warrior against communism, moral relativism, alternative lifestyles, and a sick culture. It is one thing to issue the call of putting one’s house in order, quite another to assume as one’s calling the charge of others’ houses as well: the bend of religious candidates today is often noticeably toward the latter. On the upholding of separation of church and state are founded the concerns not only of 1960 and 2012, but of every election where the sectarian enthusiasms of a candidate are put on display.

The depressing fact is that an evangelization campaign is indeed underway, led by political candidates who equate agnosticism and science and secular liberalism — in short, the very values of the Enlightenment which brought forth America in the first place — with a sick culture of child rape and general moral decay. In the metaphor of the synoptic gospels, the followers of Christ are called to be fishers of men. The question then becomes the nature of the net and the character of the capture and the right of the rest of us to swim unmolested among our own respective schools.

One response to “Rick Santorum and the Republicans’ Kennedy Problem

  1. In March of last year the Boston Globe quoted Rick Santorum telling a group of right-wing Catholics that he was “frankly appalled” that America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” In characterization, Santorum went further by saying “That was a radical statement,” and did “great damage.” And Santorum concluded, “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.”

    Santorum may insist that he is a better Catholic then I am and a better man to be president than John F. Kennedy, but just as freely I view him as a religious bigot that neither speaks for me in matters or conscience nor political affairs. And further, were he to gain the power of the presidency by successfully painting the people’s consideration with his brand of religious fanaticism, it would do “great damage” to our land.

    And frankly, in words of comparative disparagement that Lloyd Bentsen directed at Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice-presidential debate, “Rick Santorum, you’re no John F. Kennedy.”

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