This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is an update on a debate that seemed to be resolved a half-century ago.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, and delivered one of the important speeches in American history on the role of religion in government. Kennedy, seeking to become the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, eloquently explained the need for distance between the church and the state:

“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 accept 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 led 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 apart at a time of great national peril.”

In the context of 1960, Kennedy’s words were what Americans anxiously wanted to hear, and his commitment to church-state separation helped get him elected. Were a political leader to deliver the same remarks today, they would likely be less well received.

Indeed, though it went largely unnoticed, former senator and likely presidential candidate Rick Santorum traveled Thursday to Houston — the same city Kennedy spoke to — in order to make the case that JFK’s historic address had it backwards. The right-wing politician who’d like to be the second Roman Catholic president made his case that Kennedy’s commitment to First Amendment principles was a big mistake.

Conservatives were skeptical of the messenger a half-century ago, but approved of JFK’s message. The right’s worldview when it comes to religious liberty is far less healthy 50 years later.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Roman Catholic Church’s scandal involving the sexual abuse of children continues to produce horrifying details: “Hundreds of sex abuse victims have come forward in Belgium with harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy that reportedly led to at least 13 suicides and affected children as young as two, a special commission said Friday.”

* The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist group, is taking an advertising campaign to the Bible Belt, including 50 billboards in the Atlanta area with messages including “Imagine No Religion” and “Sleep in on Sundays.”

* And there’s finally a resolution of a long-standing debate: is ChristWire a site written by unhinged evangelicals, or a site mocking them? Now we know, it’s the latter.