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Is Rick Santorum Missing JFK’s Point On Religion?

Filed by KOSU News in Politics.
February 29, 2012

When GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum was growing up, he says, John F. Kennedy was a hero in his Catholic home.

In a speech last year, he said he had always heard glowing reports of Kennedy’s speech about religion to Protestant ministers in 1960.

“And then very late in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech and I almost threw up,” Santorum told a group of college students last year. “You should read the speech. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square.”

Santorum said Tuesday that he regrets his graphic language. But he insists Kennedy’s view was wrong, particularly the opening, when Kennedy said, “I believe in an America 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.”

On Sunday, Santorum told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Kennedy set the foundation for expelling faith from politics. “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come in the public square and make their case?” he asked rhetorically.

But Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary and who authored a political biography of Kennedy called The Making of a Catholic President, says he thinks that’s “a radical misunderstanding of what Kennedy was trying to convey in that speech.”

Casey says Kennedy would have been “booed off the stage” if he implied there was no place for religion in public life. He says Kennedy was explicit: While religious leaders should not tell politicians how to vote, they can and should instruct politicians on faith and morals.

The speech has to be read in context, Casey says. Kennedy was running in a political climate that was openly hostile to Catholics.

“And the primary issue is the accusation that Catholicism represents a church and a state, that inevitably to be Catholic means you want to have a Catholic-dominated state — and that Catholic leaders will coerce Catholic politicians to make that so,” Casey says.

Fifty years later, the political climate is vastly different.

“In 1960, the issue was differences between religious affiliations — such as between Protestants and Catholics,” says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Green says many Protestants considered the pope to be a threat. Now, conservative Catholics and Protestants have joined forces — and they consider the big threat to be secularism.

“The conflict seems to be based around the level of religiosity — with more traditionally religious people in most, if not all, religious communities having different views about politics than those who are more progressive or more liberal or less traditional,” Green says.

He says Santorum is finding a receptive audience among conservative, white evangelical Protestants: He won 51 percent of them in Michigan and is favored among them in polls nationwide. Indeed, Santorum says the Obama administration is waging a war on religion, even claiming that the president practices a “phony theology.”

And the president is not the only target.

“One of the reasons I think Santorum is talking about religion is also to shine a bright light on his opponent Mitt Romney’s reticence to talk about religion,” Casey says. “So it’s not just about getting the record ‘straight’ on JFK and attacking Democrats. It has the added benefit of shining a bright light on the fact that Mitt Romney … is very hesitant to address the issue.”

Romney is a Mormon, and polls suggest that makes many Republican primary voters uncomfortable. Romney tried to address that issue five years ago, in a speech modeled on Kennedy’s. But unlike 50 years ago, Romney’s speech does not appear to have put voters’ concerns to rest. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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