On Sunday, Santorum gave what the NYtimes called a full-throated defense of religion in politics. In particular, Santorum said that John F. Kennedy’s speech on separation of church of state made him want to “throw up.” I quote:
“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?” Mr. Santorum said on Sunday. “You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?That makes me throw up.
This, of course, is argument by misrepresentation. First, we are not talking about the public square, but rather politics—the latter being a somewhat smaller subset of the former. Second, no serious American politician has ever said that people of faith have no role in politics. What some have said–and this is something altogether different—is that religion has no place in politics.
But those who have said that or something like that (Kennedy again—more on that later) are certainly not today’s politicians. No. If there is one thing no serious national politician dare say in today’s political climate, it is that religion has no place in politics. Meanwhile what can be said—and Santorum has not only said it, but exemplified it many times over—is that religion does have a role to play in national politics.
So Santorum has things exactly reversed.
In fairness to Santorum what is true is that if someone, like Santorum himself, brings religion into politics—say, papal views on contraception—some people (a lot of people) will not listen to him. Indeed, they will immediately turn away and not think twice about what he is saying. But, of course, that is true, not just of Santorum, but of anyone who brings to the political table fundamental assumptions that the audience takes to be outlandish, non-starters, beyond the pale, etc.
If Santorum wishes to bring god or the pope to the political table—he can have at it. And no one will (no one has) prevented him from doing so. But that hardly means that he is somehow entitled to have people treat his arguments (are they arguments at all?) seriously. In this regard Santorum (and those who wish to bring religion to politics) are in no way disadvantaged relative to everybody else.
What Santorum is demanding is that people listen to his religious views. He can demand that too. In fact, he’s doing it. And no one is preventing him from doing that.
It’s just that he’s really unlikely to be as successful as he wishes he would be.
Now, what about those who think that religion has no place in politics? Well, that too is a position—and it is a position which, on peril of being lost, needs to be argued for. I will not do that here. (Though, I will point out that Santorum is helping a lot with the case.) Instead, as promised, I want to return to Kennedy’s speech—the one that makes Santorum want to “throw up.”
What then about Kennedy’s speech? There, Santorum’s argument is one by misdirection. When Kennedy argued for a separation between church and state and said he wouldn’t bring religion into politics, it was not because he was trying to gain the sizable constituencies of atheists, agnostics, and people of non-religion. He argued for separation of church and state because he wanted to reassure voters that he, as a Catholic, would not be running the country in accordance with the wishes of a foreign power—namely, Rome. (For more, see here.) From Kennedy’s speech:
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured–perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.
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.
On this score Santorum need offer no reassurances. He has made it perfectly clear where he stands. As for “throwing up” (political erudition is apparently not what it used to be) that seems a bit physiologically extreme.