Santorum takes on JFK, a half-century later

September 9, 2010

Government & Politics, Religion

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, speaking Thursday in the same city where 50 years earlier then-candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously declared his belief in an “absolute” separation of church and state, said Kennedy had gone too far, with profoundly dangerous consequences for the country.

The Pennsylvania Republican, who many political watchers believe is preparing for a 2012 presidential run, spoke at the Roman Catholic University of St. Thomas. The almost universally receptive audience in a nearly full 300-capacity auditorium included students and faculty from UST as well as Houston Baptist University and members of the neighboring Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Santorum’s talk, billed as “Role of Faith in Public Life: 50 Years After John F. Kennedy’s Speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” was a response to the Massachusetts Democratic senator’s Sept. 12, 1960 speech at Houston’s Rice Hotel to address widespread concerns among Protestants that as a Catholic, he would be beholden to the Vatican in making decisions as president. (The full text of Kennedy’s speech can be read here, and a video of the speech can be found here.)

Santorum, who since his 2006 loss to Democratic challenger Bob Casey, Jr. has been a lawyer in private practice and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center think tank, said that Kennedy could have assured the Houston ministers that he would not take orders from the Pope as president while embracing his Catholic faith publicly and still won election in 1960.

“He could have stood by his beliefs and won, but he chose not to,” Santorum said. (Kennedy narrowly defeated then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a Quaker.)

Santorum, himself a Catholic, said that Kennedy in his speech sought “not just to dispel fear, but to expel faith” from the public square. The speech, which he said was aimed not just at the Houston ministers but to “elites” in academia, media and business, helped pave the way in the 1960s for religion to be exorcised from the public and political spheres, he said.

Quoting liberally not only from Kennedy but philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke, Santorum said that Kennedy’s vision of a complete barrier between religious and public life was completely against American tradition, resembling more the secular models of modern France or Turkey.

Santorum said the concept of a “wall of separation” between church and state, which does not appear in the U.S Constitution,  was coined by Thomas Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention and who later attended religious services in the U.S. Capitol.

Santorum said since its founding, the country has worked to bring people of different faiths together and struggled with a basic question:  “How do we best live with our differences?” The answer, he said, is what he said was James Madison’s “equal and complete remedy” of allowing people, including politicians,  to live their faiths publicly.

“But what John Kennedy advocated sounds more like Attaturk than Madison,” Santorum said, referring to the founder of modern Turkey.

He said Kennedy’s speech helped lead to a “debasement of the right of religious freedom” that discouraged all people of faith, not just public figures, from talking about or living their faiths.

Today, he said, that has led to such consequences as the American Civil Liberties Union suing to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions as “emergency care” under the health care law passed under President Obama and a University of Illinois professor of religion who was fired after discussing the Catholic Church’s stance on homesexuality in an e-mail to a student .

Santorum noted that in 2003 he drew much media attention and heat for remarks he made opposing same-sex marriage. He said that while he would not have voted for the Texas sodomy law that was struck down that year by the Supreme Court, he opposed the “legal reasoning” behind the decision. That reasoning, he said, created a whole new right to “consensual sexual activity” that would ultimately lead to same-sex marriage.

Like prohibitions against murder, Santorum said, the idea of marriage being strictly between a man and a woman is a “moral absolute” that cannot be altered. He later distinguished those “moral absolutes” from other issues, such as the need for government welfare or the U.S. war in Iraq, where he differed from the American Catholic hierarchy.

During a question-and-answer session, Santorum was particularly critical of the Obama health care reforms, which he said lead to the rationing of medical care. He said that profit-driven health care, while imperfect, was far preferable to a government-run model.

Santorum also criticized both the pastor of a Florida church who tentatively has planned to hold a rally to burn copies of the Quran, and the imam who plans to build an Islamic center and prayer space near the site of the 9/11 attacks in lower Manhattan.

“He would do great harm to our country, our troops, and the principles of the First Amendment” in going ahead with the rally, Santorum said of Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville.

Santorum said Iman Feisel Abdul Rauf, who is spearheading plans to build the Islamic center near Ground Zero, is hurting his own cause by trying to put the center there.

“He will do some real damage. A lot of people are suspicious, not just of the jihadists, but (other Muslims), asking ‘Why aren’t you more vocal (against extremism)?,'” he said.

“It’s hurting Islam,” he said. “Americans want to be lenient.”

UPDATE:  To the suprise of few, Santorum announced his presidential candidacy on Monday, June 6. In February 2012, during the Republican primary campaign, Santorum’s views on the Kennedy speech drew national attention. On April 10, after a long-fought and sometimes bitter campaign against front-runner Mitt Romney, Santorum suspended his race for the GOP nomination.

A full-text version of Santorum’s speech can be found here. A video of the speech, presented by UST’s Pope John Paul II Forum, is  posted here. J.R. Gonzalez, a friend of the author who blogs about Houston history for the Houston Chronicle , provides more context on the Kennedy speech here.

RELATED:  The Common Good or An Age of Selfishness?

Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer based in Houston. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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2 Comments on “Santorum takes on JFK, a half-century later”

  1. Mike Wright Says:

    Ken, are you going to fact check pieces like Santorum’s speech? I’m not aware of an ACLU lawsuit to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions (though my ignorance means almost nothing), but I do know that Obama’s health care bill doesn’t create government-run healthcare.

    Just asking because I think the great failing of journalism these days is it’s tendency to become stenographers. I realize it’s a slippery slope, but you are certainly more than capable of navigating it.

    Glad to see you’re blogging, and please note that nothing I’ve written above is in any way a criticism of you. I look forward to the next post.

    Reply

  2. Ken Fountain Says:

    You raise a good point and a good concern, Mike. Thanks for the constructive input.

    Reply

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