Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president? While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that. Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

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.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.” Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.

Huh? The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator. Does he really not get it? I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here. The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square. Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner. Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde Park. Wear a sign proclaiming the end of the world. Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important. It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings. The rules are different here. The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion. No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools. No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay). No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well? No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools. No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall. No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related posts:

Related links:

Disambiguation: Legend, Myth, and More
10 Commandments (for Atheists)
God Needs a 12-Step Program to Obey His 10 Commandments
Something Better than “In God We Trust”
About Bob Seidensticker

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