Rick Santorum's understanding of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state matches his understanding of almost everything else. Santorum's corruption should not be overlooked, nor should his vengeful hyper-partisanship, but what truly defines him is his combination of belligerence, zealotry and ignorance. It's what makes him an authoritarian's authoritarian. He can be completely, utterly wrong on factual matters, even matters of basic civics and history, but he will not let that temper his relentless attacks on his perceived foes. (Being one of the Righteous has its perks.)
It's hard to keep up with all of Santorum's factual inaccuracies, but Blue Texan summed up the highlights back in February:
It's difficult to recall a presidential candidate who had such a poor grasp of the basic facts of history [as] Rick Santorum. He's mangled the Crusades. Less than two weeks ago, he botched the French Revolution. And Saturday, he revealed an astonishing ignorance of U.S. history as well with his remarks on public education.
That list doesn't even include his amazing claim that the Dutch euthanize their elderly.
Certainly Santorum's political views are also extreme, including his positions that contraception is a "grievous moral wrong" and abortion should not be allowed even in cases of rape or incest. Instead, women should be forced to just "make the best of a bad situation." Because, holds Santorum, life is precious (not counting people we kill overseas), and "The right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."
Santorum's religious knowledge doesn't seem any more impressive. As Mike Lux asks, What Bible is Santorum reading? Meanwhile, Juan Cole points out the top ten Catholic teachings Santorum rejects while obsessing about birth control.
There's plenty more to be said about Santorum, but for the moment, let's focus on his misunderstandings about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. As a reminder, the First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The actual phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" appears in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, echoing earlier writers, and further explains the establishment clause. Freedom of religion was further defined by the highly-influential Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Jefferson, with the help of James Madison. (More on this later.)
So where does Santorum stand on all this? On Sunday 2/26/12 on This Week, Santorum defended his previous remarks that John F. Kennedy's famous speech upholding the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up":
Here's the transcript:
STEPHANOPOULOS: That speech has been read, as you know, by millions of Americans. Its themes were echoed in part by Mitt Romney in the last campaign. Why did it make you throw up?
SANTORUM: Because the first line, first substantive line in the speech says, "I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute." I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.
This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison—
STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you wanted to throw up?
SANTORUM: -- the perfect remedy. Well, yes, absolutely, 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 who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can't come to the public square and argue against it, but 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 cites the exercise clause, but conveniently completely ignores the establishment clause. While Santorum defended his "throw up" line several times with Stephanopoulos, he later said "I wish I had that particular line back." However, he stood by everything else. Moreover, some readers may recall Santorum attacking JFK's speech before. Steve M. chronicles at least five occasions Santorum has done just that, dating back to 2002. This was not a one-off; Rick Santorum is a theocrat, and his misrepresentations of the First Amendment and Kennedy's speech have long been central to who he is as a political figure.
You can watch the video of Kennedy's speech here, or read a transcript and listen to the audio here. The context is important; as NPR reports:
On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church. Kennedy addressed those concerns before a skeptical audience of Protestant clergy.
Here's the key section Santorum was criticizing:
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.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; 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.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
Finally, I believe in 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; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
Clearly, Santorum has grossly misrepresented Kennedy, who was expressing a fairly mainstream and historically sound understanding of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Kennedy never said that "people of faith... have no role in the public square." He said precisely the opposite. This should be glaringly obvious to anyone who actually reads Kennedy's speech (plus, Kennedy was publicly a person of faith himself). He's also an odd figure for Santorum to attack since Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president to date, remains a source of pride for many American Catholics even if their political views differ.
So who exactly is Santorum's audience? And why does he misrepresent Kennedy so badly? Scroll back up and read what Santorum said again, and it is truly astounding to see how utterly, completely wrong he is. This makes his anger even more disturbing. Discussing his motivations, we're entering the old stupid-evil-crazy debate. Obviously Santorum is a theocrat, a far right religious authoritarian, and his views on JFK should play well with other religious authoritarians in the conservative base. But he doesn't seem aware that his take on this speech is far outside any mainstream reading. It won't play with the general electorate, and it would be hard to disown all his theocratic statements later. In truth, his reading is strikingly anti-textual. Is he just dumb? The evidence to date suggests Santorum isn't a bright man, and stupidity probably is a factor, but I think that the dominant factor here is "crazy," or zealotry.
There's a tendency among some people to project their own notions of wisdom into exalted works. It is common for people to cite the Constitution, the works of Shakespeare, and sacred texts such as the Bible or Koran as sources of wisdom. People of very disparate views will agree that these works contain wisdom, but they will often disagree vehemently about what that specific wisdom is. Among people of reasonable intelligence and good faith, there's room for disagreement and earnest debate, of course. However, not all interpretations are created equal. Nor is the level of effort that goes into those interpretations equal. Certain people never really take the time to read these works carefully and reflect on them, or to study their history and context. Certain people take an anti-textual approach, projecting whatever they consider wisdom onto the work itself even when the text directly contradicts their views. Needless to say, this is a highly ideological approach. Subconsciously, it goes something like this: "The Constitution is wise, and my views are righteous and correct, so surely the Constitution must match my beliefs." (Who actually needs to read the damn thing?)
I think that's part of what's going on with Santorum here. What we're seeing is zealotry fueling pure denial. He simply cannot accept the words in front of him, nor the concepts behind them. He hears "separation of church and state," and to him this is dangerous and threatening. If we're feeling especially charitable, we could say that because Santorum feels his religious beliefs are under siege, he interprets "separation of church and state" as an attack, and this irrationality overwhelms him. Of course, he has a B.A., M.B.A., J.D. and is an adult, so he should be able to follow a logical train of thought. (Nor is this cognitive collapse an isolated incident.) Fundamentally, the First Amendment promises religious equality and neutrality, and that is precisely what Kennedy espouses in his speech. This is only a threat to theocrats, for people who don't want equality, but dominance. Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege," and that is definitely operative here. Of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win. That's really what Santorum objects to; he opposes any sort of meritocracy when it comes to policy and ideas. He believes his faith is the true one and he knows the truth. Therefore, he is entitled to impose it on others. In his fevered mind's eye, equality is a threat; anyone who does not capitulate to his righteous order is a threat. This is why he can stare at Kennedy's words and transmogrify Kennedy's defense of religious freedom into an attack on it. Santorum is a poster boy for belligerent opposition to the reality-based community. Even when Santorum's completely, absolutely wrong, he'll angrily fight for his beliefs, and if anyone has the temerity to push back, why then, he believes they're infringing on his freedom of religion. Santorum's petulant, stunningly anti-textual approach to these and other matters may fairly be called ignorant, but his is a hard-won, hard-fought ignorance full of pride and driven by religious zealotry.
On that note, let me return to one of my favorite attacks by Rick Santorum against JFK and freedom of religion, from back in March 2011:
Rick Santorum told about 50 members of the group Catholic Citizenship that he was “frankly appalled” that America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
“That was a radical statement,” Santorum said, and did “great damage.”
The Boston Globe reports that Santorum, who is Catholic, criticized the increased secularization of politicians, which he related back to a speech Kennedy gave at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. Kennedy had made the speech to a group of Protestant clergy as a presidential candidate, in order to allay fears that the Catholic church would influence his decisions if elected.
“We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process,” Santorum said Monday.
“Jefferson is spinning in his grave,” he added.
He actually said Jefferson. It's hard to think of a worse choice among the founding fathers (maybe Thomas Paine) for Santorum to invoke. I believe Santorum said "Jefferson" because of his poor understanding of the Declaration of Independence and childish demonization of government. However, Jefferson was a deist, who rewrote the Gospels (the so-called "Jefferson Bible") to take out the supernatural elements (basically, he admired Jesus' moral teachings, but disliked what he viewed as evangelical additions). He studied theology and owned a Koran. (Jefferson was also a fierce advocate for public education, contrary to Santorum's beliefs that the founding fathers opposed it, so his ignorance on Jefferson specifically is particularly impressive.)
Most importantly, Jefferson actively fought for the separation of church and state that Rick Santorum so despises. As mentioned before, the very phrase "wall of separation between church and state" comes from a letter by Jefferson, even if similar sentiments were expressed by earlier writers. Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the three accomplishments he listed on his tombstone (being president was not one of them), and the statute was highly influential. (You may also recall that Kennedy mentioned it in the speech Santorum so distorted. Apparently, this did not prompt Santorum to study more about Jefferson and freedom of religion in America.) Susan Jacoby provides some important background.
In America, where the great debate over the federal Constitution was just beginning, Virginia's law was hailed by secularists as a model for the new national government and denounced by those who favored the semi-theocratic systems still prevailing in most states. As the Constitutional Convention opened in 1787, with George Washington as its president, legally entrenched privileges for Protestant Christianity were the rule rather than the exception in most states. The convention could have modeled the federal constitution after the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which extended equal protection of the laws , and the right to hold office, only to Christians. And not all Christians: Catholics were only permitted to hold public office if they took a special oath renouncing papal authority "in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual." Even that restriction was not enough for the most committed descendants of the Puritans; sixty-three of Massachusetts towns registered official objections to the use of "Christians" rather than "Protestant," bearing out a prediction by Adams that "a change in the solar system might be expected as soon as a change in the ecclesiastical system of Massachusetts." State religious restrictions were grounded not only in old prejudices but in the relative political strength of various religious constituencies. The 1777 New York State constitution, for example, extended political equality to Jews -- who, though few in number, had considerable economic influence in New York City -- but not to Catholics (who were not allowed to hold public office until 1806). Maryland, the home state of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, guaranteed full civil rights to Protestants and Catholics but not to Jews, freethinkers, and deists. The possibility of equal rights for non-Christians had not even occurred to Carroll. In this old age, he wrote, "When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England, but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all equal rights." In Delaware, officeholders were required to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity, and in South Carolina, Protestantism was specifically recognized as the state-established religion.
But the framers of the Constitution chose Virginia, not the other states, with their crazy quilts of obeisance to a more restrictive religious past, as the model for the new nation. The Constitution is a secularist document because of what it says and what it does not say. The first of the explicit secularist provisions is article 6, section 3, which states that federal elective and appointed officials "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." No religious test. This provision, much less familiar to the public today than the First Amendment, was especially meaningful and especially sweeping in view of the fact that the necessity of religious tests and religious oaths for officeholders had been taken for granted by nearly all the governments of the American states (not to mention those of the rest of the world) at the time the Constitution was written. The addition of the affirmation is significant, because it meant that the framers did not intend to compel officeholders to take a religious oath on the Bible. The intent could not have been clearer to those who wanted only religious men -- specifically, Protestant believers -- to hold office. As a North Carolina minister put it during his state's debate on ratification of the Constitution, the abolition of religious tests for officeholders amounted to "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us."...
The significance of Virginia's religious freedom act was recognized immediately in Europe. News of the law was received with great enthusiasm -- not by the governments of the Old World, with their entrenched state-established religions, but by individuals who wished to promote liberty of conscience in their own countries. The Virginia law, translated into French and Italian as soon as the text made it across the Atlantic in 1786, was disseminated throughout most of the courts of Europe, and, as Jefferson wrote to Madison, "has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports which stated us to be in anarchy." Expressing his pride in Virginia's leadership, Jefferson observed that "it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."
Notice that had religiously intolerant forces in 18th century America had their way, Rick Santorum's Catholic faith would have been officially persecuted. Instead, the Convention voted for religious freedom and neutrality, a separation of church and state. It would be one thing if Rick Santorum and other theocrats made an honest argument, and said, "Even though the Constitution forbids theocracy, and centuries of legal decisions uphold that, we want to impose theocracy on America. We seek to overturn the establishment clause of the Constitution." But honesty and basic civics literacy are not their style. This is always the way of theocrats – they yell and whine about being oppressed, but they already have freedom – what they really want is privilege and power over others. They are petulant, dangerous bullies, and this is why, in the democratic process, they must be prevented from gaining power. They do not truly know or care about the actual founding of America and freedom of religion. Rick Santorum is free to exercise his own religion, and free to express his own bigotry and ignorance, precisely because the founding fathers he knows so little about chose a different and better path.
(On a related note, a 2007 post looked at Mitt Romney's "anti-JFK speech.)