Santorum Misses the Mark on Famous Kennedy Speech

[02.27.2012]

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had some harsh words for president John F. Kennedy’s now famous address, declaring that the 1960 speech to a group of ministers in Houston on the role of religion in public life made him want to “throw up.” Ironically, the main purpose of Kennedy’s speech was to allay pervasive fears that Kennedy, a Catholic, would base his presidential decisions on the Vatican’s decrees, rather than the American public interest. Santorum, who is also Catholic, interpreted the speech as an attack on religious people:

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. . . . 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.

Santorum’s major grievance – that Kennedy was advocating an absolute prohibition of religion in the public square – is unlikely to resonate among most Americans. Most Americans want their political leaders, particularly their presidents to have strong religious beliefs. At the same time, nearly two-thirds (66%) of American simultaneously affirm the belief that we must maintain a strong separation of church state. And it was this tension between personal religious (or moral) conviction and public leadership that Kennedy sought to address.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” Kennedy explained, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – 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.”

Kennedy was not suggesting, as Santorum put it, that “people of faith [have] no role in the public sphere.” Rather, he rejected the notion that a presidential candidate must come from a particular faith tradition, and reaffirmed his belief that no one religious group should have undue influence over a president or legislators. According to Kennedy, the commander-in-chief was required to balance his own religious principles with a secular public good.

The American public strongly affirms the principle of religious liberty, as we saw during the debate over contraception. But it’s clear that the general public understands – and agrees with – the implication of Kennedy’s broader point about that political leaders should be able to operate independently from outside religious influence; and more equally (if not more) importantly, that religious groups should be able to eschew political influence. After all, 88% of Americans agree that their country was founded on idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular. The ideal president, for many Americans, would be able to rely on his or her religious beliefs, while using the office of the presidency to protect the religious freedom of those with whom he might disagree.