Separation of church and state, a defining issue in our history, is also a defining issue for Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. The emergence of Romney as the GOP frontrunner and the rallying of top religious right leaders to Santorum at a meeting in Texas over the Martin Luther King Day weekend casts the two politicians' views in sharp relief.
Both candidates have staged high-profile speeches to define themselves in relation to John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association - a speech that has served as the model for how politicians balance religion and public life for a generation. But when they stepped up to the podium to define themselves in the bright light of history, each pandered to the religious right.
Kennedy had sought to allay concerns about how he would navigate his Catholic faith and his constitutional responsibilities. "I believe in an America," he declared, "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."
"I believe in an America," Kennedy continued, "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."
Romney similarly sought to allay concerns about his Mormon faith as he prepared to run for president in 2008. He staged a major speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where he was personally introduced by the former president. Romney at once sought to echo Kennedy - who had said that while he embraced his faith, when it came to public policy, the church did not speak for him and he would not speak for the church, that he would be president of all of the people and that he would swear to uphold the Constitution. In so doing, Kennedy dissolved some people's concerns about whether he harbored any divided loyalties to the Vatican, and the philosophy he articulated seemed to resonate widely.
But Romney's task was very different. He needed to simultaneously appeal to conservative Christians - many of whom were not only explicitly anti-Mormon, but were opposed to any notion of separation of church and state. Romney cast himself within the broad American tradition of religious liberty, and of separation - and then he invoked the bogeyman. "In recent years," he declared, "the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life."
"It is as if," he darkly declared, "they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong. The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square."
In making this charge, Romney tapped a deep vein of religious right ideology - attributing malevolent intentions and considerable power to "some" people, an unnamed "they" who are somehow seeking to foist a new (and nonexistent) religion of secularism on unsuspecting Americans - and subvert the will of the founding fathers to boot. He didn't say who, and he didn't say how, or offer any facts in support of his claim. He didn't have to. This was dog-whistle politics, intended for those with ears to hear it.
Romney seemed to satisfy mainstream editorial writers that he had risen to the occasion - but it was not at all clear that he had satisfied most conservative Christians.
The Making of the Anti-Kennedy
Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, is a conservative Catholic running in the long shadow of our first Catholic president. While working as a senior fellow at the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in 2010, Santorum staged a Kennedy-esque address in Houston - in order to position himself as the anti-Kennedy.
"Let's make no mistake about it," Santorum declared, "Kennedy was addressing a real issue at the time. Prejudice against Catholics threatened to cost him the election."
"But on that day," Santorum continued, "Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear; he chose to expel faith. Let me quote from the beginning of Kennedy's speech: 'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.'"
"The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state," Santorum concluded, "is not and never was the American model."
Santorum based his attack on a familiar strain of Christian nationalist historical revisionism. He claimed that Kennedy's use of Thomas Jefferson's authoritative phrase was misleading because Jefferson was not present when the First Amendment was written.
"The phrase 'wall of separation,'" Santorum stated, "comes from a letter written by a founder who didn't even attend the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson." It is true that Jefferson was not present for the writing of the Constitution (1787) at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, or for the First Congress (1789), which passed the First Amendment. He was serving as the US Ambassador to France at the time. But it is also true that his role as an architect of our constitutional approach to the relationship between religion and government is well supported by history.
Jefferson is the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he introduced in 1779 and which was finally passed by the Virginia Legislature in December of 1785 by his close colleague and successor as governor, James Madison. Madison went on to serve the following year as the principal author of the Constitution (1787) and, then, the First Amendment (1789). (The enactment of Jefferson's bill is commemorated annually on January 16 as Religious Freedom Day.)
"With the 1785 passage of the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom," eminent historian Frank Lambert wrote in his book, "Religion in American Politics," "Madison's position prevailed in Virginia and became the model for the federal constitution as well: no religious establishment of any kind and freedom of religion as a right that the government cannot abridge."
But Santorum, like Romney, claims that a dire consequence of Kennedy's view has been an increased secularization of American society. "In remarks to about 50 members of the group Catholic Citizenship - which encourages parishioners to speak out on issues of public policy," The Boston Globe reported last year, "Santorum decried what he called the growing secularization of American public life." He blamed Kennedy's 1960 speech and his views on separation. "That was a radical statement," Santorum said, "and it did great damage." But like Romney before him, he did not say what he meant by secularism. He also did not specify what damage had been done, or to what, or to whom.
Another example of Sanatorium's historical revisionism is his claim that the phrase "separation of church and state" had been plucked from obscurity by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education. While the court was divided about the issues, it was unanimous in its use of the phrase "separation of church and state" as an authoritative understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment.
"Ultimately," Santorum claimed, "Kennedy's attempt to reassure Protestants that the Catholic Church would not control the government and suborn its independence advanced a philosophy of strict separation that would create a purely secular public square cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths." Santorum's unsupported conclusion was that Kennedy had "laid the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left and its political arms like the ACLU and the People for the American Way."
Unsurprisingly, Santorum has been a hero to the Catholic right. "To us, he's the preeminent Catholic politician in America," Austin Ruse, president of the anti-abortion Culture of Life Foundation, told National Catholic Reporter in a 2005 profile. "The 'us' Ruse refers to," the magazine reported, "are conservative Catholics, loyal to the magisterium, to this pope and his predecessor."
Historian Lambert observed that the positions staked out by Patrick Henry and James Madison in the 1780s over use of taxpayer funds to underwrite Christian education, "framed the debate and still account for the contention surrounding religion in American politics." Madison's view won in the 18th century, but the substance of the debate is as current as the latest election season.