Rick Santorum's Thoughts on Separation of Church and State Are Not Based In Reality

In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, then Democratic candidate for the presidency, delivered a watershed speech on the separation of church and state in an effort to assuage concerns from Protestants that he would answer exclusively to the Pope and the Catholic Church. In 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican candidate for the presidency, said that Kennedy’s articulate defense of the First Amendment and our founding constitutional values of separation between church and state made him “want to throw up.”

Discussing Kennedy’s remarks, Santorum claimed that in America today, people of faith can no longer “come to the public square” to engage in civic activity, but are instead forced to suffer the imposition of “values from the government” against them. He contended that there is an enforced prohibition against expressing religious beliefs in civic settings, attributing to Kennedy the idea that “faith is not allowed in the public square” and that it must be kept separate. Santorum concluded his comments with a statement that should, for all intents and purposes, disqualify him from ever holding public office in the U.S., declaring that he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

The problem with Santorum’s statements and attributions is that, along with displaying a shockingly poor understanding of our legal and religious history, his claims are inaccurate lies in every sense.

Kennedy never said, nor has the law ever been understood, to prohibit religious groups from participation in civic activities. In fact, Kennedy argued the exact opposite, advocating for an America 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,” where “no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials,” and where “religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”           

Legally speaking, the separation between church and state is, and has always been, understood as a one-way prohibition. It prohibits the state from excessive entanglement with or outright discrimination against any particular religion. This makes perfect sense because it prevents the state from playing favorites, supporting certain religions at the expense of others.

While some founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, argued that the intention of separating church and state must create a prohibition that goes both ways, prohibiting both religious involvement in government and government involvement in religion, that view has never been formally adopted by our courts. The reasoning justifying this outcome is that government rules prohibiting people of faith from engaging in civic activity on behalf of their faith necessarily violates the prohibition on government from discriminating against religious beliefs.

Put another way, the marketplace of ideas that populates our public square is one that welcomes all religious beliefs to the conversation, whether their believers number in the millions or in the dozens, and the government gets no say in who is allowed to speak.

Santorum’s words should elicit a visceral reaction from all Americans. It is truly unbelievable that a legitimate contender for the presidency can so flagrantly dismiss and intentionally mischaracterize one of the most fundamental tenants underlying our country’s founding and modern day functioning.

Santorum’s ongoing attacks against the bevy of liberties that form the foundations of our Constitution and way of life show that, for all his talk about believing in American values, Santorum seems to hate us for our freedoms. The American electorate should recognize his breathtakingly anti-American stance and punish him accordingly at the polls.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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Mark Kogan

Mark is a lawyer and Mic contributor living in Washington, D.C.

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