For Non-Oscar-Watchers

Rick Santorum reacts to JF Kennedy’s famous line about the “absolute” separation of church and state.

In the speech, Kennedy addressed the concerns of Protestant ministers who doubted whether he would make decisions as president independent of his Catholic faith.

“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,” Kennedy said.

On Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum whether he stood by his statement last year, noting that Santorum’s rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), delivered an address on religion during the 2008 campaign that garnered comparisons to Kennedy’s address.

Santorum defended his remarks, telling Stephanopoulos that “the first line, first substantive line in the speech, says, ‘I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute.’”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum said. “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.”

He went on to note that the First Amendment “says the free exercise of religion — that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.”

“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. ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’ It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent at the time of 1960.”

Later in the interview, Stephanopoulos asked Santorum, “You think you wanted to throw up?”

“Well, yes, absolutely,” Santorum replied. “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.”


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  • Kind of the opposite of Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith.

  • I think Santorum likely has a point here. The founders of the United States, see Jefferson and Franklin, wanted to keep the church out of state affairs, but also wanted the church to make virtuous citizens devoted to the state. In other words they wanted a union of sorts on their own terms.

    An insight I gained from my friend Allan R. Bevere’s book, *The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World*.

    I think this can work both ways. The church might want what amounts to a kind of union with the state on the church’s terms. Which really ends up compromising the calling of the church. I think I see this today, as well.

  • Jared

    The problem I have with Santorum’s commentary on Kennedy’s speech is ignoring Kennedy’s own definition of “absolute separation”. The entirety of Kennedy’s speech is the clarification of that statement. I did as Mr. Santorum asked and read the entire speech. No where did I read President Kennedy say, “I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult people of faith.” What Kennedy says is that he believed in an America “…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.” I believe Mr. Santorum either didn’t understand President Kennedy’s vision embodied in this speech, or willfully misrepresented it. Either one makes me very suspicious of his fitness for the presidency.

  • DRT

    Jared#3 has it right. Santorum (hmm, that word is not in my dictionary…) does not understand what he is saying (if I am to be polite). Like many other Christians he is using the ways of man, the fact that Christians are a majority here to give special status to us. I don’t agree with it. Having said that, I absolutely feel should bring their moral convictions to the public square, but they can’t do it unfairly.

    Ted#2, the state absolutely wants virtuous citizens. But they can’t take advantage of their postion.

  • DRT

    BTW, I vividly remember telling Dad that I wanted to be president some day, and him telling me that he did not think they would let a Catholic in the WH again for a long time.

    Everyone I knew was Catholic, all the neighbors, all relatives, I went to Catholic school, sure there were some people who just “did not go to church” but it was quite a shock to me to think that someone would discriminate against Catholics.

  • I think the problem we have, DRT #4, likely runs two ways. Yes, Christians along with everyone else should have a voice on the public square. But too often the church might expect the state to support it in some way while in turn it supports the state.

    The biggest problem here, I think, is that the church unwittingly compromises its calling from God. The church must never sacrifice its “politics of witness” for the politics of power in the way of the world (versus the way of God’s kingdom in Jesus).

  • Jared #3, I went through Kennedy’s speech as well, and I think Santorum indeed seems to be misunderstanding it to some extent. At the same time, I don’t think what Kennedy wanted in any way undermined what Jefferson and Franklin wanted. A state which benefited necessarily from the virtue of religion, specifically a likely deistic (for the most part) from of Christianity, while left to itself to promote an ideal that was steeped in or at least significantly in debt to the Enlightenment away from the chaos that had been seen from church-states, and Christians putting to death other Christians. (see Bevere’s book I cite in an earlier comment)

  • Sorry, I should have proofread. form of course, not from. Better grammar, as well would have been helpful, though I think it’s readable.

  • Dan

    Mr. Santorum’s rhetorical tone is a problem…it suggests that he does not want dialog, that he knows best. I would rather he made his argument without the “It made me want to throw up” language. As to substance, I think that Stanley Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens could be instructive.

  • scotmcknight

    Indeed, Dan, Resident Aliens would be a good book for Santorum to take on Spring Break!

  • DRT

    Is that a Sci-Fi book? I could sure use one 😉

  • Doug Indeap

    Separation of church and state, a bedrock principle of our Constitution, is hardly “absolute”–at least not in the cartoonish sense Santorum supposes President Kennedy meant in his 1960 speech. Kennedy did not remotely suggest that faith is not allowed in the public square. In asserting otherwise, Santorum sets up a silly “straw man” against which he then boldly battles. What nonsense.

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  • CGC

    You made this a merrier day as I smile and laughed. Thanks. From a sci-fi fan 🙂

  • T

    This speech of Kennedy’s was entirely focused on the fear being stoked by his opponents that a Catholic president would have to take orders from the Pope. Kennedy was dealing with a political scare tactic of his opponents, and that’s all he was trying to do.

    Now, in defeating that political threat to himself did he use extreme language to make the point? Absolutely. But every line should be taken as an answer to the questions of the day: “Would you as a Catholic president submit yourself to the Pope so that the Pope, and not you, would be the POTUS, for all intents and purposes? How much influence will the Pope have, exactly, in the Kennedy Administration?”

    His speech was not about a religion-free public square (a notion that would have angered the people he was attempting to put at ease). His speech was about an independent White House inhabited by a Catholic. The fact that this was a new problem for the US as late as the 1960’s (!) shows how deeply and profoundly Protestant Christianity had indeed provided the set and the stage for our government and politics from their inception.

  • Amos Paul

    You know what makes me want to throw up? Virtually everything Santorum says.

    On Birth Control (He wants to criminalize it) — “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

    He’s still fighting the Crusades! — “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American Left who hates Christendom. … What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”

    The Palestinians don’t even exist — “All the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians. There is no ‘Palestinian.'”

    That having gay sex is legally NO DIFFERENT than having sex with your family, married persons you’re not married to, etc. — “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

    While I’m no fan of Obama, Santorum has an odd view of what defines a ‘snob’ — “President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college, what a snob.”

    How do people die? It’s not lack of care! — “No One Has Ever Died Because They Didn’t Have Health Care.”

    And on the role of government, Santorum would like a governemnt VERY involved in people’s personal lives — “They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom or in cultural issues. That is not how traditional conservatives view the world.”

    And how would he like to conduct foreign affairs? — “I think it’s a wonderful thing … we’ve assassinated US citizens, we can certainly do it to the Iranians.”

    So I think Santorum is a war mongerer? — “I will make a clear declaration to the Iranian govt that you either open your facilities, you begin to dismantle this nuclear program, or we will dismantle it for you.”

    Santorum is psycopath.

  • Dave

    People of non-faith don’t exist.

  • rking

    Santorum knows that his only hope is to win a large majority of the Christian vote. I go to a very Republican leaning Evangelical Christian Church. Many of my fellow members soak up what Santorum says without actually investigating its substance.

  • T

    Let me add this: I think Santorum is a sincere and good person, but he is also the most overtly theocratic-leaning candidate that I can recall. I get the impression that I would agree with him regarding much (not all) of what he considers right and wrong. But where we would differ would be the degree to which that picture of right and wrong should be the law of the United States. Further, his tendency to see everything in either a black or white theological box is very troubling. The most recent example of calling Obama’s environmental protections not “bad policy” but an un-Christian “theology” does not inspire confidence on several levels. Being confident of one’s theological views is good; being unable to see how someone could see things differently on a clearly disputable matter is not good at all. It makes me think that his mental capacities are severely limited, or that his cultural circles are. Either quality is unacceptable for a president.

  • rking

    I wish he would have cleared up his environmental theology. It sounded to me that he was basically saying humans could do whatever they wanted because God gave the Earth to them to as they wished.

  • Rick

    Amos Paul #15-

    I agree that some of his comments are concerning. I think calling him a “psycopath” is a big strong (to say the least). Also keep in mind that just because he believes in a certain position (birth control), that does not mean he is going to have a massive policy change on it.

    Also, some context is needed for the comments. For example, on the Obama/snob quote, Santorum went on to explain further:

    “In fact, if college is the best place for them, absolutely, but you know what? If going to a trade school and learning to be a carpenter or a plumber or other types of skills or an artist… or musician, all of those things are very important and worthwhile professions that we should not look down our nose at.”

  • Amos Paul


    No, Santorum *does* want policy change. He’s repeated this time and again. He wants more regulation in the bedroom. He would like to outright criminalize contraception at the federal level. His comments are more than alarming. They’re tyrannical, war mongering, and invasive.

    I stand by the label ‘psycopath’.

  • John Mc

    It seems Romney is compelled to run for president—in his own self defense, because Santorum has demonstrated that he has no reluctance to attack any religion he disagrees with; new crusades, whether by force or by administrative edict, against those religious beliefs deemed phoney and/or inimical to Santorum’s are not out of the question. First Islam, then atheists, then … Mormons? then … Protestants?

    Rick, you might doubt whether his political/theological positions will lead him to be successful in causing a “massive policy change”, but do you want to spend the next 4 years battling to keep the degree of political, civil and religious freedom we have from being eaten away around the edges in the name of theological purification?

    Black and white is black and white. He’s not likely to tolerate shades of gray, even if Jesus Christ is actually in the name of the religion. His message is a harbinger of a new Christian Sharia.

  • Rick

    John Mc #22-

    “do you want to spend the next 4 years battling to keep the degree of political, civil and religious freedom we have from being eaten away around the edges”

    It is certainly something to keep in mind. No doubt.

    However, many would argue that religious freedom is an issue now due to the actions of the current administration.

  • Rick

    Amos Paul #21-

    “He would like to outright criminalize contraception at the federal level.”

    When has he said that?

    Here is a quote from ABC:

    “Contraception was an issue earlier in the campaign when George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney if he supported Santorum’s position that states should have the ability to ban contraception. Santorum has said he doesn’t support such a law, but he supports a state’s right to enact it.”

  • T


    Wow. I didn’t know he supported a “state’s right” to enact a ban on contraception. I’m a married man, and my wife and I purchase contraception. The fact that he would support state power to ban that, rather than my rights to purchase it, is really insulting and pretty disturbing. I can’t imagine that he will have much appeal at all to independents as these kinds of positions become better known.

  • Rick

    T #25-

    I think he would have a problem with independents.

  • Barb

    can someone explain to me, in thoughtful language, where they see the current admin taking away our religious freedom?

  • T


    It’s about a recent rule for the new health care law. Churches were given an exception to the general rule that required all employers to provide insurance to their employees that covered birth control. So churches could provide plans that didn’t cover birth control, but religious schools and other religious orgs weren’t included in the exception. That’s it.

  • T


    FWIW, I think the issue is both confused and overblown, but regardless, the charge is that the failure to include all religious orgs in the exception is an attack on religious freedom (of the employers).

    It is unfortunate that the people most affected by the rule and its exceptions–the employees whose health insurance it is–are really not considered in many framings of the debate. It’s supposedly all about the employers and what they buy (with $ earned by the employees) and the employers’ conscience, instead of the employees’ and their health care choices. The Admin made a choice to put the choice of birth control in the hands of the employees/patients rather than their bosses, except for churches. I fail to see this as an attack on Christianity generally or even Roman Catholicism in particular. If Repubs aren’t careful, b/n this issue and Santorum’s comments, they could easily end up being the “anti-birth-control” party, which could all but seal an Obama victory by itself.

  • T

    Last bit: I’m still a registered republican, but this quote is ringing depressingly true: “The contenders in the Hester Prynne primaries are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates — be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes — and try to destroy them with it.” ‘Moderate Republican’ is fast becoming an oxymoron.

  • Amos Paul

    So we know that Santorum supports states banning contraception. That is clear. And, time and again, *he* has been the one to bring contraception to the debate table.

    He told NBC News on December 29 that contraception “leads to lot of sexually transmitted diseases, it leads to a lot of unplanned pregnancies, and it’s not a healthy thing for people to engage in, you know, sex outside of marriage.” He gave an interview in October in which he said: “One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. It’s not okay”

    He is *actively pushing policy to oppose contraception*. His 2012 statement of ‘simply supporting the states’ to actually make that policy is a completely new development. Up until that point, and before he started taking fire for his rhetoric, all Santorum had to say was that contraception was THE defining issue for him. That government needs to get involved and stop it. In fact, he still is saying that. Only *supposedly* talking simply about the states now.


    Now, even RON PAUL who is criticized for wanting to give lots of powers Constitutionally back to the states (including things like legislation about public religion, abortion, and gay marriage) stated quite forcefully in January (in the debates) that the 4th Amendment should *federally* keep government out of your business whether you’re using contraception or not, and that the interstate commerce clause should *federally* keep products that are legal to trade between the states as legal to sell within the states.

    In short, he asserted that the sale of contraception can, is, and should be Constitutionally protected at the federal level… and he’s the states rights guy.

    So even if you do buy Santorum’s recent rhetorical backtracking about what he wants to do about contracpetion as President via policy–he’s still the only one pushing for bans. But I don’t buy his states rights backtracking anyway. It’s pretty damned clear that he wants it banned across the board.

  • Joe Canner

    T #14 (and others): Thanks for the helpful historical context. It’s especially ironic that Santorum, as a Catholic, is villifying Kennedy for defending himself against attacks that Sanotorum himself would have had to defend against if he were in Kennedy’s shoes. Maybe it’s time to ask again whether the Pope will have a direct line to the White House. It might be worth finding out how Santorum’s answer would be different.

  • DRT

    Joe Canner#32, the pope does not need a direct line into the White House with Santorum in there, he will have Santorum, no help needed!

  • DRT

    The most interesting dynamic that I see in this election is a combination of Scot’s “you can’t be too far to the right” idea in evangelicalism combined with a fracturing of the republican party that so far escaped them, but plagued the democrats. Perhaps we are on the verge of “you can be too far to the right”?