It is amazing what a difference a few weeks can make. When I published an essay comparing speeches about separation of church and state by John F. Kennedy, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum, I had no idea that Santorum would become such a serious contender for the GOP nomination for president, nor did I think that his views on separation would become a central issue, let alone that he would usher in this new era of American politics by declaring on national television that he found JFK's views on separation to be vomitorious.
"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute," he told George Stephanopolous on ABC's This Week. "The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country... to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."
STEPHANOPOULOS: You have also spoken out about the issue of religion in politics, and early in the campaign, you talked about John F. Kennedy's famous speech to the Baptist ministers in Houston back in 1960. Here is what you had to say.
Earlier (ph) in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That speech has been read, as you know, by millions of Americans. Its themes were echoed in part by Mitt Romney in the last campaign. Why did it make you throw up?
SANTORUM: Because the first line, first substantive line in the speech says, "I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute." I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.
This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent (ph) at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison--
STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you wanted to throw up?
SANTORUM: -- the perfect remedy. Well, yes, absolutely, to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can't come to the public square and argue against it, but now we're going to turn around and say we're going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.
Of course, JFK did not say and did not mean that religious people should be silenced or in any way expelled from public life. He was speaking about how he as president would balance his religious views with his constitutional responsibilities. But the notion that people of faith are being driven from the public square is a powerful theme animating a wide swath of the Religious Right and beyond. It is a claim that does not stand up to reasonable scrutiny, but it is nevertheless one of the most deeply heard dog whistles in American public life.
Kennedy properly understood that the rights of individual citizens can be overwhelmed by powerful religious institutions (and demagogic pols) and in order to be president of all of the people, and to be able to swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, he needed to be able to be the secular leader of a religiously plural nation, founded on the rights of the citizens -- and not out of deference to powerful religious institutions -- and he needed to be able to unambiguously say so.
That JFK did say it with such eloquence and clarity that it still makes a demagogic pol with theocratic tendencies want to throw-up, underscores the ongoing importance of his speech.
Santorum will continue to haunt the public square, but he will never be able to step out of the long shadow of our first Catholic president -- the one who understood that separation of church and state is the best and historically proved way to ensure religious freedom for all.