A little more than half a century after John F. Kennedy’s famous speech that proclaimed an “absolute” separation between church and state, the debate about the role of faith in politics has resurfaced.
In a recent speech during the Republican primary campaign, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that watching JFK’s speech made him want to “throw up.” Santorum later explained his comments saying:
“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 in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”
Kennedy gave his speech in Houston during his 1960 campaign for President because of concerns about his Catholic faith, assuring the public which included a group of Baptist ministers that he was not “the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Santorum also said he does not believe in an America where the separation of church and state is “absolute.”
[pullquote]“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.”[/pullquote]
This debate comes on the heels of President Obama’s renowned HHS mandate (Department of Health and Human Services), which requires all institutions, including religious-based organizations, to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion. Despite the emphatic rejection by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and many other religious and secular groups for overstepping the bounds of religious freedom, the Obama administration has said that it is not willing to address religious liberty concerns raised by its contraception mandate.
At a time when the economic crisis is still a very pressing matter for most Americans, Santorum highlights an issue that goes to the fundamental roots of society: religion is important for society. In an ever-growing secularist society, religion is forced outside the public sphere, relegated to the private life of church and home.
But what kind of democracy and what kind of freedom do we claim when persons of faith are no longer allowed to have a voice? Do we not see the absurdity of people in politics somehow “leaving behind” their beliefs when they enter public life? Do we not see the absurdity of the “tolerant” secularism that does not tolerate the participation of Christianity in a society built upon Christianity? And are those that promote “modern” values like tolerance, rationalism and secular agnosticism not themselves forming their own quasi-religion?
The correct understanding of the “separation of church and state” springs from the principle of religious freedom. The State does not identify itself with any one religion, and the Church “is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system.” (Gaudium et spes, 76) However, Christians, like all citizens, should have an active role in society; a participation guided by a well-formed Christian conscience.
Kennedy’s speech can be found here:
© 2012 – Patrick Travers para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC