My Take: Santorum’s right, JFK wrong on separation of church and state
The author says that President John F. Kennedy got the separation of church and state wrong and that Rick Santorum gets it right.
February 29th, 2012
11:14 AM ET

My Take: Santorum’s right, JFK wrong on separation of church and state

Editor's Note: R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

By R. Albert Mohler Jr., Special to CNN

Even Rick Santorum’s most ardent detractors have to concede this much - the former senator speaks his mind. Recently, Santorum has been speaking his mind on questions of church and state, and the political left has responded with disbelief and horror.

Over the weekend, Santorum told ABC's "This Week" that reading the text of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association made him physically sick: “I almost threw up.”

As it turns out, Santorum had made similar statements about Kennedy’s speech before. But, as Santorum quickly learned, he had dared to criticize a speech, and an argument, that the left has long considered the equivalent of settled law.

Kennedy addressed the Houston Baptist pastors at a crucial point in his campaign for the presidency. He was facing claims that a Catholic president would be unduly influenced by the Vatican and Catholic authorities, and Kennedy sought to calm those fears. In one sense, the speech was something of a political necessity. In an even greater sense, it established what amounts to a political orthodoxy on the political left.

Explaining what made him almost throw up, Santorum pointed to a statement Kennedy made early in the speech: “I believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute.”

Santorum retorted, “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.”

Santorum should have avoided gastrointestinal references in his comments, and he clearly missed some of the careful nuances of Kennedy’s speech, but his criticism of Kennedy’s argument is both timely and essentially right. Furthermore, it is high time that Americans understand that the ideas Kennedy espoused in that speech have led us to an impasse in current debates.

There can be no “absolute” separation of church and state. Such an absolute separation would, in theory, prevent any conflict or controversy between religious bodies and government. As just about any edition of a major newspaper makes clear, these conflicts occur over and over again.

Much of Kennedy’s speech would be noncontroversial, including his plea for an end to religious intolerance and his assertion of religious liberty. But Kennedy framed his argument with assertions that simply cannot be sustained. The central problem was Kennedy’s insistence that religion is a purely private affair with no public consequences.

Kennedy argued the church he believed in should not be a matter of public concern “for that should be important only to me.” Later in the speech, he said: “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

Those two crucial assertions - Kennedy's insistence that his church “should be important only to me” and his description of a president’s religion as “his own private affair” - create the problem.

The moral and political battles of the last half-century demonstrate that religious convictions cannot be merely a “private affair.” The reason for this is simple: If religious beliefs mean anything, they will affect other beliefs. Human beings are composite creatures, and there is no way that authentic religious beliefs can be safely isolated from an individual’s total worldview.

The potential for cultural conflict increases when religious beliefs are held strongly and when they are deeply integrated into an individual’s thinking. This is why Kennedy sought to affirm that he could serve as president without his Catholicism carrying any real significance at all.

That argument worked for Kennedy in 1960 when he was running for president against anti-Catholic prejudice. It does not work when we have to engage in the hard process of establishing public policy.

Kennedy’s line of argument set the stage for the hugely influential effort of intellectuals such as John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas and Robert Audi. The secular left is deeply committed to their idea that public arguments must be limited to secular reason, with religious beliefs and arguments ruled out of bounds.

This approach has also led to the secularization of vast areas of public life, marginalizing citizens with deep religious convictions. The coercive power of the state has forced the secularization of charitable work, leading to such tragedies as the closing of religious charities that refuse to secularize their ministries.

Santorum is surely right when he spoke of these things as “absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

The very fact that, in 2012, a presidential candidate from one party can create instant headlines by arguing against a speech made by a presidential candidate of the other party, more than 50 years ago, should be enough to convince any fair-minded American that we still have much work to do as we try to reason with each other about these questions.

As we get about that task, we need to speak to one another with care, courtesy and full conviction. Massively difficult issues loom before us, but this nation is sufficiently mature so that we can have this conversation without losing our lunch.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of R. Albert Mohler Jr.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Church and state • Opinion • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (351 Responses)
  1. Ktotheeirk

    Rick Santorum's Indecisive manner when it came to JFK's speech proved that he's willing to say anything to sway a group of voters, whether it be by holding a resentful view on past presidents' demonstration of Separation of Church and State, or by claiming that any and all forms of contraception be outlawed. He seemed to not have had any serious goals or views.

    May 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
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    April 21, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  3. superbeebs

    I think the fundamental issue is one of an individual's freedom of conscience. Each individual in a democratic society has a priviledge and is responsibile for shaping the morality of that society. Laws need to be passed that are a culmination of the thoughts and ideas of individuals largely in agreement. Churches or Religious Groups are simply gatherings of individuals in the society who hold similar beliefs on morality, law, etc. As collective individuals they have a right to influence through free speech and voting, the moral landscape of their society. But all "churches", "groups", "gatherings" secular or nonsecular have influence on the morality of the nation as a whole. That's what Santorum and Mohler are saying here. When the society collectively passes a law prohibiting individuals/churches from practicing their morality or mandating individuals/churches to practice a different morality, they should then freely speak out against such laws and civily disobey the prohibitions or mandates. Their will be consequences for this disobedience, but this is the cost of liberty of conscience. Lets not isolate some individuals or groups of society for speaking out or trying to shape their country according to the moral beliefs that they have. All citizens have this right, whether athiest, Christian, muslim, buddhist, new age, etc. and all can disobey and go to the stocks willingly.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  4. Nathan

    The reality is, and I speak this from an evangelical perspective, that the church is happy with a distinction between itself and the state only when it is beneficial for the church. The church, rightly, believes that it is not the place of the state to dictate or legislate belief or morality. However, the church is not sold on allowing the state to make its own decisions. The church feels that it should be the moral compass for the state. When in all actuality the church should not seek to dictate to the state what it can or cannot do any more than the church wants that dictated to it from the state. The role of the church then in matters of state is to live subversively when it does not agree with the state. Case in point is the civil rights movement the responsibility of the church is to fight for the equal treatment of all human beings in all places at all times no matter what policies the state has in place. This is something that should be done in the way that it was, subversively, not overtly. To take Mohler to point, I agree that religious convictions are not a private thing, but they are also not something that can be dictated to other people. We cannot force religious convictions upon the world instead those convictions must be lived out. The real issue is not should certain practices be allowed, but how is the church to be welcoming and affirming and loving of all people at all times in all places. The role of religion should not be to divide and demarcate who is in and who is out or who is right and who is wrong. But it should be a place where people can find respect and love because they are human regardless of anything else.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  5. Kerv

    Those who advocate a complete separation of church and state, with no influence whatsoever of the church upon the state, are forgetting our country's history. The abolitionist movement that finally eliminated slavery was largely a religious movement, animated by the religious belief that all men are equal in the eyes of God. The civil rights movement was guided by a coalition of southern churches, who leaders were the REVEREND Martin Luther King, the REVEREND Shuttlesworth, the REVEREND Abernathy, etc. They all pushed for change from the pulpit. In those days, should our national leaders have sough to somehow smash or smother those religious groups and leaders agitating for change? Religion informs our morals. Many political issues of yesterday and today are moral issues (slavery, civil rights, abortion, etc). If morality as proclaimed by various religions is denied a place at the policy table, then our nation will only be guided by those with a very cramped and limited moral view – which would have been a disaster for abolition and civil rights way back then – and would be no less a disaster today.

    March 3, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nobody's "forgetting" anything. The fact that you want to revise history is your problem.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  6. Richard Lamb

    JFK is absolutely right!!! Rick S.....is as bad as Rush Limbaugh. Both mouthy political junkies guilty of polluting the intellectual environment.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  7. Patrick

    "There can be no “absolute” separation of church and state. Such an absolute separation would, in theory, prevent any conflict or controversy between religious bodies and government. As just about any edition of a major newspaper makes clear, these conflicts occur over and over again."

    Interesting. So any agency that has conflict with the government can not be absolutely separate from the State? That is a slippery slope and an unsupported argument.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Momof3

      "There can be no “absolute” separation of church and state. Such an absolute separation would, in theory, prevent any conflict or controversy between religious bodies and government. As just about any edition of a major newspaper makes clear, these conflicts occur over and over again."

      WHAT??? The major publications report on the events that are heppening BECAUSE there is no separation...aren't we TRYING to prevent a conflict or contorversy between religious and governing bodies by advocating for the separation? Am I missing something here?

      March 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Reality

    There are times when the state cannot separate itself from religious and educational establisments.

    To wit:

    The "vomit inducing" pedophilia situations at Penn State, the Boy Scouts of America, the RCC, the Southern Baptist Convention, Seventh Day Adventists, Judaism, the Citadel et al.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Haime52

      And atheists are, we all know, immune to pedophilia, etc.!

      March 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  9. WASP

    love hearing the church wants to be more involoved in politics. i will quote the late george carlin. " if religion wants a say so in how this country is run, let them pay their admission price like everyone else." otherwise and george carlin's best statement" keep thy religion to thy self"

    March 2, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  10. manda

    "This approach has also led to the secularization of vast areas of public life, marginalizing citizens with deep religious convictions."

    It's always so absurd to hear Christians complaining about being "marginalized" or "persecuted" as they try to keep control over every aspect of society. Makes me want to .... well .... puke.

    March 2, 2012 at 5:59 am |
    • Haime52

      Manda, you are so right, about some Christians. Your brush is, however, really a broad one. Those who live there lives in quiet piety, can be and often are marginalized for no more than the fact that they profess Christ. They are not the ones in your face or putting anyone down. They are the ones who help their neighbors, stop when you're broke down and ask nothing in return. Yet they are often reviled as idiots and stupid. tehy don't try to "control every aspect of society" because they know that it is beyond their control, they only try to show their faith by example. Their reward in this life, is statements like your's.

      March 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.