Returning to Vomit

March 05, 2012

There have been several noteworthy responses to Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's vomitous attacks on John F. Kennedy's famous speech on religion and politics (see post here about Santorum's attacks). Santorum's main opponent for conservative evangelical votes, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, took a different approach and praised Kennedy's speech. Perhaps being a historian helped Gingrich actually understand and appreciate Kennedy's speech. Gingrich called it a "remarkable speech" and rightly explained that Kennedy was declaring "that his first duty as president would be to do the job of president, and I think that's correct." Gingrich's response is surprising since he often joins Santorum in utilizing confessional politics, which is the polar opposite perspective on religion and politics. Kennedy's niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, penned a column defending Kennedy's speech on religion and politics. Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, argued:

Either Santorum doesn’t know his American history or he is purposefully rewriting it. ... Can he be so ignorant of what Kennedy actually said and what the pope has actually preached? Or is he using his faith for political purposes? ... Santorum is encouraging division and intolerance.
Townsend correctly notes Santorum's erroneous history and politics. Similarly, USA Today took Santorum to task in an editorial:
His misinterpretation, so transparently flawed, is troubling in at least a couple of ways. First, it is the latest example of hyperbole and exaggeration to foster division and resentment in American politics. ... Far from banishing religion from the public square, government leaders at all levels have shown a willingness to publicly embrace religion in recent years, a good bit more so than in Kennedy's time.
Noting problems with the implications of Santorum's philosophy, C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, argued:
Surely, Mr. Santorum's jarring attack on President Kennedy's support for religious freedom should be a wake-up call for all of us who care about freedom, politics, government, and religion. At stake in his words is a danger to the American way of life that has allowed religion to thrive in this nation without becoming entangled with and divided by the government.
Many other good critiques of Santorum's inaccurate and unhealthy perspective have been published in recent days.

Although Santorum continues to defend his perspective on religion and politics, he has expressed regret for saying Kennedy's speech made him want to "vomit." Santorum said that he wished he could take "that particular line back." Although the line was definitely over the top, his perspective is still quite problematic even without it. 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.