Santorum Vomits

February 27, 2012

Yesterday, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked John F. Kennedy's famous speech on religion and politics (the photo is one I took of Santorum in Iowa last year). Santorum several times said the speech made him want to "throw up," mainly because Kennedy advocated his support for separation of church and state. This line of attack in becoming common in our age of confessional politics, which has dramatically changed the relationship between religion and politics from the time of Kennedy. Here are a few excerpts from Santorum's comments:

I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. ... This is the First Amendment. 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. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. ... Well, yes, absolutely, to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.
Santorum makes several mistakes in his vomitous remarks. First, he is absolutely wrong to say Kennedy's 1960 speech was seen as "abhorrent at the time." Kennedy only won the election because he articulated exactly what people at the time wanted to hear. Had he given the speech Santorum wants, Kennedy would have been easily defeated by Richard Nixon. Second, Santorum misrepresents the First Amendment because he only cites one of the two religion clauses. To do so gives an incomplete picture and therefore leads to inaccurate conclusions. Third, Kennedy's speech did not express a new vision "for the first time." In fact, Kennedy's perspective resonated quite well with the religious-political philosophy of presidents like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Fourth, Kennedy did not say people of faith have no role in the public square. As Santorum said, "Go on and read the speech" (you can right here). With these remarks, Santorum is demonstrating himself to be a poor historian, a poor politician, and a poor theologian. Santorum apparently likes to throw up because he keeps reminding himself of Kennedy's speech (see posts here and here on other times he inaccurately attacked Kennedy's speech). I have studied and written about Kennedy's speech in several pieces, including my book on confessional politics, an academic study in the journal Communication Studies, and a column in the Houston Chronicle. Hopefully Santorum will think before vomiting out additional inaccurate attacks on Kennedy's speech. And hopefully his remarks will inspire more people to actually read and seriously consider what Kennedy actually said.

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