Santorum Misunderstands Both Kennedy and Religious Pluralism

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Joel K. Goldstein teaches and writes about constitutional law and the presidency and a writer for the History News Service. This article was originally published by the History News Service; attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

Even without its ugly imagery, Rick Santorum's repeated claim that John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about religious freedom made him "throw up" would rank as one of the most unsettling remarks of the 2012 campaign. Contrary to Santorum, Kennedy did not say or imply that "people of faith have no role in the public square," and his speech ranks as one of the classic statements of the pluralistic foundations of our country.

In September 1960, when some Protestants suggested that Kennedy's Catholicism should disqualify him for the presidency, Kennedy confronted the role of religion in politics in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. In words more poetry than prose, Kennedy argued that no one should be denied public office because of his faith, that no public official should request or accept "instructions on public policy" from any "ecclesiastical source," and that no religious entity should seek "to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."

—  Kennedy affirmed his commitment to an America that is "officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish" and "where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." He envisioned "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."

Yes, Kennedy proclaimed a belief "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," but he never said that "people of faith have no role in the public square." Indeed, he promised to act based upon what "my conscience tells me to be the national interest" and to protect "the First Amendment's guarantees of religious liberty."

Contrary to Santorum's mischaracterization, Kennedy never sought to banish religion from public life. In his inaugural address, delivered four months later, he swore his presidential oath "before 'Almighty God'" and proclaimed that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God." Kennedy implored all "'to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to 'undo the heavy burdens ... (and) let the oppressed go free,'" and he closed by "asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Less than three weeks later, Kennedy argued that America was founded on two interdependent propositions: "a strong religious conviction, and … a recognition that this conviction could flourish only under a system of freedom."

In a broadcast address on civil rights in June 1963, Kennedy said the nation was "confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." The previous day, in a commencement speech at American University on arms control, Kennedy invoked "the Scriptures" for the teaching that "when a man's ways please the Lord ... he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him."  

Kennedy understood that religious conviction had a place in civic discourse and in shaping attitudes on public policy. But he rightly believed that such discussion must occur in a pluralistic context that accepted the legitimacy and equality of various religions, that rejected religious tests as a qualification for public office, and that encouraged public officials and citizens to discharge their political responsibilities based on the public interest.

Kennedy's Houston speech helped shape a consensus understanding of religious pluralism that has lasted for half a century. Ronald Reagan, for example, echoed some of its themes near the end of his 1984 re-election campaign. Reagan said that America was "founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism." America had no established religion, it mandated "no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief."

Religious pluralism is a cornerstone of our nation, an ideal that infuses our founding documents and our history, an intrinsic part of what makes us indivisible. That is what Kennedy was talking about a half century ago in Houston. That should not upset our stomachs, or our minds.

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