Private Faith and Public Policy: Where Obama and Santorum Agree
Christianity Today was founded in 1956 to offset the influence of The Christian Century. In those days, we rarely agreed on anything. But in the run-up to the 1960 election, the two magazines warned Americans against electing a Roman Catholic President.
The Roman Catholic Church was not like "most denominations," CT's editors warned. If it were, "all Americans would welcome a qualified Roman Catholic citizen in the White House." But Roman Catholicism claimed "the State should officially recognize the Catholic religion as the religion of the Commonwealth … and should … sanction the laws of the church."
Those words from Pope Leo XIII provoked the same kind of reaction as talk of Shari'ah law does today. "Election of a Roman Catholic to the presidency … sooner or later would be a threat to our freedoms," said CT's editorial.
The candidate at issue was, of course, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, war hero, senator from Massachusetts, and scion of a politically connected Irish American family.
His election to the presidency in 1960 was by the narrowest margin since 1916. One key factor in his victory was a speech he gave to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, assuring the ministers that fears of foreign and denominational influence on his policies were unfounded. Without those reassurances, no Catholic could have won the presidency.
Memories of that occasion emerged this year when former Senator Rick Santorum told a college audience that when he read JFK's speech he "almost threw up." Santorum told ABC News, "Kennedy for the first time articulated a vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square …. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come in the public square and make their case?"
Unfortunately, Santorum significantly misread JFK's speech. Kennedy was not discussing the public square, but the presidency. He did not reject the participation of people of faith in the public debate, but the idea that ecclesiastical prelates could have back-channel influence on the President.
Let me offer several reasons why Catholic candidate Santorum should have welcomed what Kennedy accomplished in Houston.
First, Kennedy's speech was a key step in bringing American Catholics fully into their country's political and social life. Because the Vatican had indeed labeled the separation of church and state a heresy, and had done so in recent memory, Kennedy's opponents had reason to believe that Catholic prelates would try to shape American life by the force of law rather than by persuasion and example.
Kennedy put such fears to rest. As a result, politicians like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have not had to consider their Catholic identity as political baggage. Six out of nine Supreme Court justices are now Catholics, and Protestants and Catholics work together on important social issues without fear of excessive church entanglement with government.
Second, Santorum should be glad that Kennedy did not support the secularization of politics; rather, he encouraged the privatization of religion.
Privatization means tying religion closely to family issues and personal concerns, while muting its voice on public policy. In modern, pluralistic democracies with great religious diversity, privatization allows us to show respect for the way faith plays out in the lives of others without undermining faith's role in our own lives. Privatization is one of the prices we pay for living together in peace.
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