What Rick Santorum doesn't understand about JFK
By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
March 2, 2012
America's only Catholic president referred to God three times in his inaugural address. He invoked the Bible's command to care for the poor and the sick. Later in his presidency, he said, unequivocally, about civil rights: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."
Yet, last Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is also Catholic, told ABC News that John F. Kennedy's classic 1960 campaign speech in Houston about religious liberty was so offensive to people of faith that it made him want to vomit.
"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up," Santorum said. "What kind of country do we live [in] that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?"
Either Santorum doesn't know his American history or he is purposefully rewriting it. How can he seriously imagine that Kennedy, a person who got down on his knees each night to pray, who gave his time and money to win tough primaries in states with strong anti-Catholic traditions, who challenged us to live our Christianity by ending racial hatred, somehow lacked the courage of faith or tried to exclude people of faith from government and politics?
In his presidential campaign, Kennedy faced fierce anti-Catholic prejudice. He appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association because he feared that his faith was being used unfairly against him. Norman Vincent Peale, along with 150 other ministers, had issued a letter urging citizens to vote against Kennedy because, should he win, he would be controlled by the Vatican. Peale's group called itself the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom. How ironic that the term "religious freedom" would be used as double-speak for religious hypocrisy -- but it certainly was not the first or last time.
Anti-Catholic prejudice has a long history in America. Construction of the Washington Monument was halted partly because an anti-Catholic controversy erupted in 1854, when the pope gave us a stone from Rome for the project. (You can see a change in color partway up the monument between the initial structure and the rest, finished nearly 30 years later.) Catholic students at public schools who didn't want to recite the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer were sometimes expelled. As late as 1928, voters rejected Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith, calling the Democratsthe party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion."
Kennedy, my uncle, hoped to make it clear that the pope would not control him. The government would not regulate church doctrine, and no minister would determine government
policy. As he put it:
"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; 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."
He specifically referred to birth control, too, saying he would follow his conscience in accordance with what he believed to be in the national interest and not cave in to "religious pressures or dictates."
Santorum is more like Kennedy than he may realize -- he follows his conscience. It's true that on some issues, such as contraception, where the bishops are at odds with many other
Catholics, he sides with the bishops. (I'm tempted to recall my father Robert Kennedy's observation that priests are Republican and nuns Democratic.) But Santorum has also taken positions at odds with the Catholic hierarchy. He has opposed the church's pro-immigrant policies. He has attacked President Obama's "phony theology," which he says involves caring for the Earth -- no matter Pope Benedict's pronouncements on protecting the environment.
Nor in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed did Santorum cite papal views on the financial crisis. On Feb. 15, in an address at Rome's Major Seminary, the pope said that "the world of finance, while necessary, no longer represents an instrument that favors our well-being or the life of mankind; instead it has become an oppressive power that almost demands our adoration." Somehow Santorum missed that.
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 has since expressed regret for his choice of words about Kennedy, but his words cannot be forgotten. The challenge is not Santorum -- it is the 28 percent of Americans who think the separation of church and state should be abolished.
Santorum is encouraging division and intolerance. The subtext of his remarks is that America should be a conservative religious nation -- and that Kennedy was denying it. Well, he was. Here are his words to the ministers in Houston:
"I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood."
Perhaps Santorum should recall the Gospel's teachings, which might direct us to positions different from those he advocates. Jesus told his followers that they would be judged on how they clothed the naked, fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger. His directive to love God and our neighbor leads many faithful Americans to support same-sex marriage and to see that marriage itself can be strengthened when couples make love without fear of an unplanned pregnancy. Each of these positions can be made in a secular setting, but they also have a moral argument, grounded in faith.
In 2012, people of many faiths are running for office -- Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, my own godson, Joseph Kennedy -- and one can disagree with their policies while respecting their religious views. Bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis and imams lobby Congress and state legislatures on various issues. They have a voice. They just don't always win every election or argument. Welcome to democracy.