The Song of Santorum
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 12:27:37 AM EST
In light of late polls apparently showing Rick Santorum "surging" in Iowa, it seems like a good moment to reprise a post from March, when Santorum visited Massachusetts.

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) who is considering running for president, recently visited Boston, a major hub of Catholic politics and the biggest media market in New England.  While minor appearances by non-candidates don't always make the news, Santorum's remarks to a small group of Church partisans made The Boston Globe because he not only denounced our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy in his home town, but he attacked Kennedy's historic 1960 campaign speech in which he explained his unwavering clarity regarding the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. Kennedy's position had  served as the standard for a half century of political leaders. (See Rob Boston's excellent defense of Kennedy's views on separation.)  

Santorum has been trying to rebuild his political career since being unseated by Bob Casey (D-PA) in 2006. And while he may not catch fire on the campaign trail, Santorum's bombast in Boston is certainly part of an escalating war of attrition against the principle of separation -- and it may be a bellwether for what we might anticipate in the run-up to the 2012 presidential campaign.


The coming battle may very well turn on the details of American history, as we shall see. But in the meantime, let's return to the beginning of our story.

The Boston Globe reported

"In remarks to about 50 members of the group Catholic Citizenship -- which encourages parishioners to speak out on issues of public policy -- Santorum decried what he called the growing secularization of American public life.

He traced the problem to Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which Kennedy - then a candidate for president - sought to allay concerns about his Catholicism by declaring, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Santorum, who is Catholic, said he was "frankly appalled" by Kennedy's remark.

"That was a radical statement," Santorum said, and it did "great damage."

Unsurprisingly, Santorum has been a hero to the Catholic Right. According to a 2005 profile in National Catholic Reporter:  

"To us, he's the preeminent Catholic politician in America," says Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, a Washington-based pro-life group. The "us" Ruse refers to are conservative Catholics, loyal to the magisterium, to this pope and his predecessor. "He's a living, breathing, daily communicant who's in the Senate leadership so all of us know that the things that we care about are discussed at the highest levels of the U.S. government," says Ruse.

If Santorum's Massachusetts appearance is any indication, he is positioning himself as the anti-Kennedy and the epitome of the new Catholic pol.  To better appreciate how this is so, note that his remarks are rooted in a little-noticed address he gave last fall in Houston (the text of which is featured on the web site of the neo-conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.)  The event was evidently positioned as an answer John F. Kennedy's historic speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he declared that as president he would not take orders from the Pope and that he respected the doctrine of separation.

Santorum is deeply steeped in revisionist history. But let's focus on just one of his claims.  

The phrase "wall of separation"... comes from a letter written by a founder who didn't even attend the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's famous phrase has long stood in the way of the ambitions of the theocratically inclined because the Supreme Court has found it to be useful in explaining the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.  That's why the Religious Right expends so much energy attempting to invalidate it.  

Part of Santorum's line of attack is to undermine the significance of the phrase by highlighting the fact that Jefferson was not present when the First Amendment was written.  While it is true that Jefferson was not around when the First Amendment was written, it is also true that his role as a key architect of our Constitutional approach to the relationship between religion and government is very well-supported by history.  Because this is so, facts are being selectively distorted in order to sustain a counter narrative of American history favorable to key elements of the Religious Right.  Here is how I addressed the 'Jefferson wasn't there' meme in my 1997 book Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy:

One Christian Right leader, John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, wrote an influential book, The Separation Illusion, [1977] in which he attack's Thomas Jefferson's notion of the separation of church and state as the key phrase grounding the Supreme Court's understanding of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Whitehead claims that Jefferson's views are irrelevant because Jefferson was not present when the First Amendment was written.  Christian Right activist David Barton makes the same point in his book The Myth of Separation: What is the Correct Relationship Between Church and State? [1992]

While it is true that Jefferson was, at the time, President Washington's Ambassador to France and was not personally present for the drafting of the Constitution and the First Amendment, his influence is generally acknowledged by historians. In fact, the preponderance of evidence demonstrates the centrality of Jefferson's views in shaping the framer's views of the proper relations between religion and government. In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which was ultimately pushed through the Virginia legislature by his close colleague, then-Governor James Madison, in 1786.  This law provided the theoretical basis for the First Amendment.  Jefferson believed that it was, along with the authoring of the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia, one of his most important accomplishments. Madison, in turn, is generally credited with being the principal author of both the Constitution and the First Amendment.

Historical distortions are a key ingredient in the success of the Christian Right to date.  This effort to somehow discredit the historical relevance of Jefferson is part of a larger effort to revise American history to suit their contemporary religious and political objectives ....

There are many deceptive propaganda ploys such as Whitehead's to fire up the prospective constituencies of the Christian Right. They are often difficult to address, not only because they can be such a tangle of lies and distortions, but because few outside of their primary intended audience pay much attention.  The effect of all this is the systematic alienation of conservative Christians from mainstream society and the creation of a counterculture which believes that somehow "the truth" has been kept from them through various conspiracies.

If we follow Santorum's logic, John F. Kennedy's views on separation are invalid because Jefferson's views are invalid because Jefferson was not personally present when Madison authored the Constitution and Congress passed the First Amendment.

Whatever else we hear on such things from Santorum, we can reasonably expect to hear many more such things in the not to distant future from Religious Rightists and the pols who pander to them. (John McCain did it last time.)

I don't mean to claim that the Religious Right is losing steam. However, when Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani in 2008 the real reason behind the existence of the Religious Right was clearly revealed: a race/class redoubt. As a race/class redoubt, the Religious Right is not handcuffed by any religious prohibition or commandment. They don't take the religious part of their identity seriously. It looks genuine and the suckers genuinely practice it until the money runs out and the good people among them are forced to redefine their ideas of spirituality. It's the Religious Right that is racing to embrace the market Ultras - NOT the other way around. CEOs and Wall Street a**holes aren't finding Jesus - the Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders are discovering anew the anti-communist virtues of that old timey religion.

by Brian Gallagher on Sun Mar 20, 2011 at 10:41:23 PM EST
Rather, he is part of an emerging strand of conservative Catholic Christian nationalism that dovetails with earlier conservative evangelical versions.

Whatever the merits of your 2008 revelation about the nature of the Christian Right, it does not invalidate the significance of Santorum's latest project.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 11:31:01 AM EST

After several years of libertarian/paleo-conservative thought dominating the Right, Santorum's rise may be signaling the rehabilitation of neo-conservative philosophy.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 02:43:28 PM EST

Logic fails me how anyone can read this in the constitution and NOT see that the Government described is supposed to be secular. This is not even a 1st Amendment "issue", this is from the basic Articles (VI, to be exact): "but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States"

by Edski on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 10:38:24 AM EST
Or rather, the word "logic". As in, it's not a tool used by most religous-right adherents. For many of them, listening to the words of leadership telling them that what they wish was true actually is true, echoed by "intellectuals" like David Barton, makes the world continue spinning properly. Logic is of no use to them, as many studies recently have shown. In fact, it causes them to more fervently embrace their own "facts".

Combine that with their deeply held authoritarian stances, and you don't have a chance of getting through to them with logic or facts, no matter how obvious they seem.

by trog69 on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 02:10:01 PM EST
since there is no known way to reason with this particular group, is there are emotional argument that would work? Or is an act of God needed?

by Hirador on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 03:06:39 PM EST
A person I know refers to that as the "magic key".

Getting past their programming (and that is literally what happens in most cases) requires that you somehow stumble on the "magic key" that gets them to questioning their authorities and what they've been taught for however long they've been associating with those churches.  It differs with every person.  It's hard to find and use.

About the only thing I've found that begins to get through, but usually sets them into a screaming rage (literally) is when you use the scriptures against them to show how they're wrong.  That requires you to be very fast on your feet mentally and verbally, well read on the scriptures (and if you know Biblical Greek and Hebrew, even better).  Even then, it usually doesn't work immediately and they have to have some experiences (as I did) that showed the fallacy in some part of what they'd been taught.

In fact, using the Bible against them might prove to be physically dangerous in some instances, they might think you're "Possessed by the Devil" and try to exorcise you, or even harm you.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 03:47:50 PM EST

by trog69 on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 02:18:22 PM EST

The greatest harm Rick can do to American freedom and separation of church and state is being the bottom half of a Romney ticket.  Rick is not too smart but is capable of delivering Pennsylvania to the GOP and possibly throwing the election into the House.  Guess how that will turn out?  Rick can no doubt do a Cheney type shadow government as VP and continue to be a meme bearer for General Franco lovers like Chaput in Philly (a strategic papal appointment?) who framed the official post mortem Vatican hit on JFK's theologically incorrect Houston speech and his wrong attitude toward Church dominance in the Vatican American public town square in their ideal visualization of the future.

by Mike McShea on Mon Jan 02, 2012 at 04:23:49 PM EST
There are still a number of Pennsylvania residents who remember how Santorum ripped off the Penn Hills School District. And there are plenty of us who stand ready to remind those who have forgotten. See here for details: ndal

by MLouise on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 05:22:36 PM EST

Great content! It's refreshing to see a detailed analysis of Rick Santorum's visit to Massachusetts and his controversial remarks about John F. Kennedy's stance on the separation of church and state.  Peter Veres luxury homes The author effectively highlights the significance of Santorum's statements and their implications for the upcoming presidential campaign. The historical context provided regarding Thomas Jefferson's role in shaping the constitutional approach to religion and government is also enlightening. This article sheds light on the tactics employed by the Religious Right and the importance of understanding the revisionist history they promote. Overall, a thought-provoking and informative read.

by isabelladom on Wed Jun 28, 2023 at 03:02:22 PM EST

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