Monday, February 27, 2012

Rick Santorum's Culture Warfare Makes Me Want to Throw Up

By Garrett FitzGerald 

So maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But as controversial conservative candidate Rick Santorum's lead has dipped in the hotly contested Michigan primary, it seems like we are hearing more - and more outrageous- hyperbole from this sweater-vested culture warrior. In his latest assault on the known liberal bastions of history and common sense, Santorum described his fairly visceral reaction to fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech on the role of faith in politics. In the speech, Kennedy - then the Democratic nominee for the 1960 presidential election - sought to quell the fears of Protestants concerned that the Roman Catholic Church would exercise undue influence over American policy through a Catholic president. Kennedy's speech detailed not only how his understandings of his own personal faith would "allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church," but also outlined his fundamental vision for a religiously neutral and pluralistic United States.

Apparently Kennedy's insistence on the necessity of separation between church and state does not sit too well with Rick Santorum, who doubled down this week on comments he made in October, wherein he claimed that he "almost threw up" the first time he read Kennedy's speech. Via the Huffington Post:
"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. 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 say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."
Here's the video, in case you feel the need to challenge the strength of your own stomach:

If you're having a hard time swallowing Santorum's obscenely biological response to Kennedy's speech, you are not alone. Santorum's claims should be taken with more than a grain of salt whenever he starts pontificating on matters of history and religion, and his response to Kennedy's speech demands a heaping spoonful for its willful misrepresentation of Kennedy's message and the historical context that necessitated such a speech in the first place.
Santorum's interpretation of Kennedy's message, as a propaganda piece promoting a secular leftist agenda to eliminate religion's role from the public and political spheres, is a perennial scare-tactic among conservative politicians attempting to rally a base increasingly united only by the fear of their own obsolescence. In her 2010 intellectual tour de force, America by Heart, Sarah Palin leveled a similar critique against Kennedy's speech, claiming JFK "essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are." And despite the Religious Right's increased impact on every level of US politics over the last couple of decades, conservatives routinely cry foul on liberals trying to ban religion from politics in what they claim is direct contradiction of the wishes of our Founding Fathers.

In fact, we know that a strict separation of church and state at the federal lever was exactly what the Founding Fathers intended, because it is exactly what they wrote into the Constitution that they themselves created. Not only did they write it into the Constitution, but they continued to defend and elaborate upon this fundamental separation for years afterward, as when Thomas Jefferson echoed Baptist minister Roger William's phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in an 1802 letter to Baptist leaders in Connecticut concerned about the protection of their own religious liberties. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have further reinforced Jefferson's interpretation of the First Amendment, with the Court finding in the 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision that Jefferson's metaphor "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [Establishment Clause of the First] Amendment."
As far as I am aware, nobody, not even the most stringent critics of religion's influence in the public sphere, have advocated that people of faith should be denied participation in the political process. Indeed, advocating such discrimination against religious individuals would fly directly in the face of the Constitution's religious test clause, upon which a significant amount of advocacy around the separation of church and state has been built.

While the wall of separation between church and state must remain in place, there has never been a similar wall in place between church and statesmen that would penalize personal religious belief and expression in the way Santorum suggests. The fact that only three Catholics - and perhaps a fourth soon, if Santorum has his way - have been nominated for the presidency by a major party certainly raises questions about whether such a wall could be said to exist for some religious traditions in the court of public opinion. But Santorum's suggestion that Kennedy's speech was in any way advocating that religion and politics should be entirely separate from one another is at best a sloppy reading of a seminally important speech, and at worst a willful characterization of the same.

Consider this other particularly telling portion of Kennedy's speech, and see how well it squares up with Santorum's claims: 
"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."
Kennedy was running at a time when no Catholic had ever been elected to the highest office in the land, a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was still pervasive, stoked by anti-immigrant xenophobia and trumped-up comparisons between the Soviet Union and the Church of Rome. Despite the embattled rhetoric of conservatives like Santorum, the rise of a politicized Religious Right has demonstrated that public profession of conservative Christianity - be it evangelical Proestant or Catholic - is hardly an impediment to political power. Santorum, in sharp contrast to Kennedy, can quite reasonably claim as some of his most devoted followers many of the conservative Protestants that President Kennedy was once forced to woo.

Even so, there exists a certain siege mentality among conservatives like Santorum, driven by the meta-narrative of "traditional values under assault" that underlies the Religious Right's worldview of permanent culture war. This is a narrative and a worldview that defy any sense of reason or historicity. Religion itself is not, as conservatives like to claim, under attack in this country, and the fact of the matter remains that the United States is still an overwhelming religious nation compared to other industrialized countries. Even the incredible political successes of conservative evangelical Christianity  over the last forty years - culminating in eight years of the lesser Bush - has failed to deflate the tone of Republican rhetoric suggesting conservative Christianity is living in the shadow of some great external threat, rather than slowly succumbing to the weight of its own anachronistic social and theological baggage.

It's no secret that Santorum obviously views a serious re-ignition of conservative culture warfare as a major cornerstone to his bid for the presidency. But in doing so he has shown himself willing to blatantly rewrite history to conform to his own warped beliefs. Despite the shadowy, secular liberal conspiracy imagined by Santorum, religion retains a vital roll in informing the lives of tens of millions of Americans, including many of our political leaders. And one vitally important roll for religion to play in that process right now is challenging claims from people like Rick Santorum who so casually rewrite the history and imperil the future of our Republic.


  1. This clown is only able to get up and spew his hateful nonsense because of the hard work and sacrifices of people like President Kennedy who brought Catholics into mainstream politics. Rick Santorum is making a mockery of the very tradition that allows him to even be considered as a presidential candidate!