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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. Reckoner

    I wonder how quickly Mr. Mohler would change his mind if Santorum was a Muslim.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Olde English D

      Of course he would change his mind. Islam is a false religion meant to deceive and take one away from the true God, the Lord Jesus.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  2. Werner Mischke

    What Mohler fails to point out is that the ultimate reason that the separation between church and state is so ambiguous is that all beliefs, whether secular or religious, are ultimately based on faith commitments, thus the blurring of what is actually religious. Check out, for example, The Humanist Menifesto — http://tiny.cc/6rg75. This is the foundation of modern American public education, is it not? It's full of purely faith-based statements. So all belief systems, whether secular or religious, require what Boston University professor Peter Berger calls a "plausibility structure." So no one belief system has absolute knowledge about the meaning of life, the why of life, or what happens when we die, the purpose of science, etc. And yet everyone posits something about what makes life meaningful. Moreover, all politics (both secular or "religiously" based) is ultimately based on a moral argument. Curiously, all moral arguments point to a transcendent moral code, i.e. the Divine. Life is so full of ambiguities and transcendence and beauty and mystery … gotta love that.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  3. PrimeNumber

    In an unfortunate twist for the liberals, it's interesting that Kennedy kept his Catholicism separate from his politics. In this way we can blame the secular side of him for his Bay of Pigs fiasco, his consigning the US to the abyss of Vietnam, and his womanizing. Even the words "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy stole from his former school headmaster. Amazing what people will do when freed from religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      its also amazing what people can do when tied to religion. ideology is the real problem. whether religious or political

      March 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  4. Eric

    I don't really understand this too well. In a free society, you can be religious, but you don't have to. But the laws should be argued from reason, and through the study of ethics, science, economics, and in this country, with a goal of maximizing freedom, and the common good. If your religion informs you to take certain positions, great, but if you must make a law, do so with rigor. And try to steer clear of making laws that violate conscience. I though these things were standard American values. But with Santorum trying to force religion, and Obama trying to force a secular worldview on the religious establishments (Catholic hospitals and colleges, for instance), I'm a little lost.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  5. BRC

    Sorry about the double post all, got an error message the first time but apparently it went through.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  6. BRC

    There is a very simple answer to this issue. Every candidate who identifies their principles and campaign with a specific religion should be asked this question:

    Suppose you are elected to an official office of the United State's federal government. While in office, all of the citizens in your consttuency came together with one voice and said "We want you to do A, that is the will of the people", but you felt that you got another message saying "I want you to do B, this is the will of your god". Which would you do?

    If you select B, you are no longer eligible for office, go join the clergy for whatever faith it is you espouse. If you said A, congratulations, you understand that while you have every right to hold onto your faith, and it is understood that your faith will affect your views and leanings, you are never allowed to put YOUR faith over the will of the people you represent; nor do you have a right to force the beliefs of that faith on people who don't share it. That is why there is a separation of church and state; that is what Santorum (and apparently this author) doesn't understand, and that is why he should not be elected.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  7. BRC

    It's very simple. Every candidate who identifies their principles and campaign with a specific religion should be asked this question:

    Suppose you are elected to an official office of the United State's federal government. While in office, all of the citizens in your consttuency came together with one voice and said "We want you to do A, that is the will of the people", but you felt that you got another message saying "I want you to do B, this is the will of your god". Which would you do?

    If you select B, you are no longer eligible for office, go join the clergy for whatever faith it is you espouse. If you said A, congratulations, you understand that while you have every right to hold onto your faith, and it is understood that your faith will affect your views and leanings, you are never allowed to put YOUR faith over the will of the people you represent; nor do you have a right to force the beliefs of that faith on people who don't share it. That is why there is a separation of church and state; that is what Santorum (and apparently this author) doesn't understand, and that is why he should not be elected.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  8. Dinsdale!

    I must admit, watching the conservatives is like watching the "Upper Class Twit Of The Year" skit from Monty Python: complete nincompoops trying to win a contest by acting weirder and dumber than their competitors. And their candidacies will end up just as dead at the end.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      And the illegal alien "president"?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • I can see we're going to have to send you to the corner again, GodsPeople

      February 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      truth hurts that bad huh?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Dinsdale!

      Wow! You are not only a religious nutter; you are a birther conspiracy theorist nutter too!

      It fits you perfectly!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Do a google search. The "green form" was proven to be a fake and the governor of hawaii admits he can't find any birth records for the nigerian.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • GodPot

      lol, Nigerian now? His father was Kenyan you moron, besides the fact he was born in Hawaii.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Momof3

      It's all a conspiracy! In 1961, this child was born and everyone said he would do great things...they put an announcement in the newspaper to say "Hark, the child has been born..."! Then, 40+ years later, another conspiracy to get this great man to President....wait a minute....this story is beginning to sound familiar!

      Obama, if they hand you a cross...RUN! It's not going to turn out well for you in the end! LOL!!!

      March 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  9. GodsPeople

    Separation of church and state has never actually been coded into law. After having done just a small bit of research into the const-itution tonight, as well as to the declaration of independence and articles of confederation, I actually see nothing requiring Christianity to stay out of politics.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • You are an idiot

      Well, if you do "just a small bit of research", you get just a small bit of a thought.

      Here is a hint: First Amendment. Key word "establishment." Large mountain of case law repeatedly supporting that concept.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Actually, you're the moron. The state cannot establish it's own religion, like England did with the Anglican church. However, there is STILL nothing on the books actually legally separating Church and State. This is pure fact. Get over yourself if you think you have a brain.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Ralph Kramden

      Are you really that stupid? The Declaration of Independance and the Articles of Confederation are not law. The 1st Amendment absolutely applies, whether of not you have the cranial capacity to understand it.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Show me where, in the 1st Amendment, it codifies a separation of Church and State, making it illegal for the Church to actually be INVOLVED in the state, and vice versa? Because, oh yeah, you can't.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Simon Scowl

      If you hear the word idiot/stupid from an atheist, pat yourself! it is their way of saying you have made a valid point but it is offending me therefore you are an idiot!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      I wasn't aware before today that atheists could even spell "idiot" or "stupid." I know they can't pronounce them, nor do they know what such big, complicated words even mean!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • O.S. Bird

      Read Article 6. This is the bit saying that "there will be no law respecting..." and stating that no holder of any public office will be subjet to a religious test. BTW, the test mentioned does not mean, "Name the disciples" or anything like that.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Q

      There are a variety of sources of law in the US: Const-tutions (Fed and State), statutes (enacted by Fed and State legislatures and signed into law by the President and Governors), common law (otherwise known as "judge-made" law) and then also administrative regulations (adopted and enforced by agencies/departments). The controlling authority of each, to my knowledge, is the same as the order presented, e.g. a Fed/State statute can't contradict a Const-tution, a common law doctrine can't contradict a Fed/State statute, etc.

      Separation of Church and State has been "codified" into the law of the US as a controlling interpretation of the scope of the Establishment Clause by the Supreme Court of the United States. To my admittedly limited knowledge, the first "codification" of Jefferson's phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" appears in Reynolds v. US, 1879, where the court looked to "legislative intent" to interpret the Establishment Clause: "Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured."

      Nonetheless, while "codified" within the law of the United States, Separation of Church and State is still subject to judicial interpretation and application with respect to the particular facts of any given case. In other words, while the phrase is "codified", what it actually "means" can change depending on the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      yet in Wisconsin vs Yoder the state of Wisconsin attempted to abrogate Amish belief and force them into compulsory schooling, even though it's against Amish religious belief (teenage boys are to be learning farming, construction, carpentry, etc... teenage girls learning to be wives and mothers). Yes the state lost, but they attempted it and it's still interference. Therefore, apparently "separation of church and state" only exists when the state wants it to anyway.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Q

      @GodsPeople – Well, as you've already pointed out, the SCOTUS (properly IMHO) ruled in favor of the parent's Free Exercise rights in this particular case. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause are two sides of the "separation of church and state" coin. Invariably, Fed/State legislatures will enact statutes which improperly infringe on Free Exercise rights or improperly promote a purely Religious purpose. The case you reference is a wonderful example of how a functional separation of church and state as interpreted by the SCOTUS protects a minority religious view when there is no compelling secular state interest (i.e. mandating 2 extra years of school was an insufficient secular state interest). However, you can find plenty of cases in which the religious view is rejected given a compelling secular state interest, e.g. holding "faith-healing" parents criminally accountable for injuries/deaths to their children, rejection of Rastafarian's religious views towards smoking pot, etc. Like all rights, Free Exercise rights are not without limits.

      Nonetheless, a functional separation of church and state has been an incredible benefit to religious exercise in the US. We remain the most religiously active and religiously diverse nation. This is in no small part due to our Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state which prevents majority religious views from usurping state powers to infringe upon minority religious views. You simply can't have a functional Free Exercise liberty without the Establishment Clause's functional separation of state from religion and religion from the state. Of course, here I'm certainly not referring to rights of individuals to shape policy and the political process according to their personal religious beliefs.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Q

      "We remain the most religiously active and religiously diverse (western industrialized) nation."

      March 1, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  10. think for yourself

    It's crazy to think that so many of us still believe that we need a 2,000 year old collection of stories to help govern ourselves. Why should we base our "moral and political battles" around a god who (if "he" existed) would condemn 5 billion of us to eternal hellfire? Sounds like the biggest tyrant we've ever heard of, and still 2 billion of us worship "him".

    February 29, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • tnfreethinker

      Bravo! That logic led to my freedom from religion. If only one religion can be "right", what are the chances one is indoctrinated into the "right" religion?

      February 29, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      God doesn't condemn one single solitary soul. You condemn yourself by your actions, thoughts, and feelings. Nothing more, nothing less.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • tnfreethinker

      GodsPeople, let's pretend for a moment that I am able to deny logic & reason, which religion/god should I choose, and what guarantee can I get that it is the "right" religion/god?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Mr Everyman

      To "think for yourself:" The collection of writtings that records things from 5,000 down to 2,000 years ago reveals the Spirit. Since it is not physical, dark matter and dark energy are physical, physical proof is not possible. The Spirit moved Abraham to end the tribal practice of sacrificing the first born son to diety. The same Spirit brought the spirit of Jesus and the body of Jesus back together in resurrection. This same Spirit moved on mankind and legal slavery is no more. It is moving on humanity with respest to cruel and inhuman treatment of women, gays and, children. We can follow our tribal law or act in the Spirit of humaneness. Our choice is voluntary. The Spirit is relevant.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  11. JohnR

    Speaking your mind is considerably more impressive when you have a functioning one.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  12. Bootyfunk

    thank god for separation of church and state.
    "This approach has also led to the secularization of vast areas of public life, marginalizing citizens with deep religious convictions."
    positively ridiculous. because religious nutjobs (mostly christians) want to shove their cult down our throats and we say no - we're marginalizing them.
    religion has no place in government. want to believe there's an invisible dictator in the sky? go ahead, i don't care one bit - till you try to get the government to force your way of (not) thinking down everyone's throat.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • stan miller

      THE BIG MYTH IS THAT THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND MOTHERS WERE GOD FEARING!

      February 29, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Benjamin Braddock

      The Founding Fathers and Mothers may not have been God-fearing, but the Founding Third Cousin Twice Removed On The Father's Side was a religious dingbat who got this whole God nonsense going as a way to cover up the fact that he ran away from the Battle of Valley Forge and sided with the British because they had a state religion.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  13. The Beagle

    >> 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.

    The world as already tried governing countries by religious, Christian belief. That was called the Middle Ages, and it was a time of intolerance, torture and corruption in both state and church.

    Only with the advent of the Enlightenment, based on "secular reason," did the world start to get humane. Today, the developed countries with the lowest crime rates (and even the lowest abortion rates!) are not the religious ones (notably America) but the secular, post-Christian democracies of Europe. Even here in the USA, the states with the most social ills are in the Bible Belt.

    Why would we want anything other than "secular reason" to govern a country? When religious beliefs have sat on the throne, disaster has ensued.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  14. b4bigbang

    Chris, sorry, i failed to answer your question, " I'd be interested to know...why some texts written at least 60 years after the death of Jesus deserve to be Gospel over others."

    I'm no expert, and i doubt if the entire minutes of the ancient church council that made the decision is extant, but here's an excellent place to start research:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon

    February 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  15. b4bigbang

    Chris, ok, if that's all he was referring to, then yes, i'm already aware of the existence of those writings. What had me guessing was his advice that we should make a trip to the Vatican to see these writings, when all anyone needs to do is to go to the nearest library, bookstore or order from amazon.

    Do they deserve cannonization? In my protestant opinion, no. However, if a person desires, they can attend orthodox or rom cath, because i believe those groups have canonized a couple or few of them.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  16. eliaswittenberg

    It's not just "political left reacting with horror". It's people on the right, too. It's everyone who loves America, and freedom of conscience and liberty. It is freedom of conscience and liberty that makes America great. Santorum would destroy both, and thus destroy America. He is a tool of the Papacy and the religious right, who have lost their way theologically.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      eliaswittenberg, excellent post, i couldn't agree more. If Santorum's messed-up Vatican philosophy is allowed to influence US govt, then it's just a matter of time before it's also influenced by Islamic Sharia law, and any other religion(s) that want to tinker with our liberties.
      NO THANKS RICK!

      February 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  17. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Hmmm. Santorum... JFK. Santorum....JFK. A Baptist nutcase or someone sane. What to do, what to do?

    February 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  18. The churches will all die because of exponentially increased spread of knowledge thanks to the internet.

    Interwebz > Bloodthirsty Monster Yahweh and his Baby Yes-Man Jesus.
    we dont need no water, woot woot!

    February 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  19. SantorumisCatholicTaliban

    Views like this one only force more secularism, which is NOT a bad thing. I am proud to say I am a Christian, but I do not attend church. Santorum is an idiot.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yup. And I hope he's the nominee. He'll be soundly beaten.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  20. Unnameable

    The "Chistians" need to stop with the preaching and head to the Vatican and see what is stored in the vaults. I dont understand how they believe some of the Dead sea scrolls now as gospel but wont believe all of it. some of it is kept away from sight and they want to say that is does not matter. just asking why they think some writings are to be followed but another is not. for a people who say they are following the word of "GOD" they should be demanding all writings no matter what the vatican says is not cannon. selective reading is not a good thing for your "soul". Until you find all your writings please stop telling us what to do. Thank you

    February 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • tnfreethinker

      They even ignore parts of writings that they do have. Cherry-pickers.....every last one.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • a person of the Name

      Not all of us are like that. Some pick and choose.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Unnameable, i understand that these "secrets" need to be released to the world, yet you apparently are privy to them. Please remove your tinfoil hat so that you can telepathically transmit these "secrets" to me and the rest of the world.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Chris

      @b4bigbang, these "secrets" that he alludes to are the apocrypha, and they're not secret. There are myriad books of the Bible that are known to exist, but "didn't make the cut" when it came time to put together what is now considered the Bible. I'd be interested to know what "secrets" you might have that explain why some texts written at least 60 years after the death of Jesus deserve to be Gospel over others. Unless Jesus popped back down to Earth for a quick visit and informed everyone what should be included in the Bible, then what you consider the Gospel was really four books out of many, and they were selected by man not God.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Dumb and dumber

      The Dead Sea scrolls are not in the Vatican. (They're in Jerusalem).
      A cannon shoots cannon balls. A canon is a standard set of something...texts.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
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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.