Santorum Hurls

Though it was not an original remark, like Romney’s coziness with NASCAR owners rather than fans, Rick Santorum did double-down on a statement made last fall that reading John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 Houston speech on church and state made him “want to throw up.” Once again, as Romney appears determined to come across as a sort of cartoon villain from a late nineteenth-century populist tract, Santorum seems locked in a perpetual casting-call for the Da Vinci Code (it doesn’t help that he sent two of his sons to a DC high school closely associated with the shadowy right-wing Catholic group Opus Dei).

It’s not surprising, of course, that Santorum is nauseated by the idea of church-state separation, the Jeffersonian “myth” that undergirds the “secularism” he has ascribed as Barack Obama’s “phony theology,” and as the primary instrument of Satan’s plan for the conquest of the United States. But Rick has certainly got his history wrong here:

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.

Uh, sorry, Rick, but far from articulating an “abhorrent” doctrine “for the first time,” JFK was telling his conservative Protestant interrogators in Houston precisely what they wanted to hear. While some conservative Catholics were indeed alarmed by what they perceived as Kennedy’s neo-Americanist heresy, conservative evangelicals in 1960–and particularly Southern Baptists–generally held views on the Establishment Clause that were difficult to distinguish from those of the ACLU.

That’s all radically changed since 1960, but JFK was hardly out of the American mainstream at the time. And despite some clerical horror at his Houston speech, Kennedy’s version of what it meant to be a Catholic politician in the United States certainly did not bother Catholic voters, who supported him at levels approaching 80%. When the liberal Catholic scholar Fr. Andrew Greely suggested in 1967 that JFK should be declared a “Doctor of the Universal Church” for his embodiment of what it meant to be a modern Catholic, he was simply exaggerating a fairly prevalent sentiment among American Catholic lay folk.

I am quite sure that characterization of Kennedy would make Rick Santorum hurl profusely. But it’s a reminder of what makes Santorum’s views on church-state issues, and on all the related “social issues,” so unusual. He is engaged not in a defense of Christian common-sense values against secular-socialist hordes in service to the Father of Lies, but an intra-Christian war in which hyper-traditionalist Catholics and hyper-conservative evangelicals come together to impose their views on believers and unbelievers alike. It’s a strange preoccupation for a professional politician, but then this is a strange year in Republican presidential politics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.