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Church, State and Santorum

Steven Newcomb
3/1/12

On Sunday, Feb. 26, presidential candidate and U.S. senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn) was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether he stands by a statement he made in October of 2011, that he “almost threw up” after reading a speech by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy about his Catholic faith, the separation of church and state, and his candidacy for the president of the United States.

The speech in question was delivered by Kennedy in 1960. It was about the role of religion in public life. At the College of St. Mary Magdalen last year, in Warner, New Hampshire, Santorum said: “Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.”

In response to Stephanopoulos, Santorum said: “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?” Santorum’s statement ought to disqualify him from the U.S. presidency. Only a religious zealot would take issue with the well-measured, reasoned tone, and sensible content of Senator Kennedy’s address.

Kennedy’s speech is best listened to rather than merely read. It demonstrates a rhetorical brilliance and oratorical delivery that today’s cast of Republican candidates can only dream of. It harkens back to a time before the explicitly stated U.S. policy, as recently announced by Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta, that it is lawful for the U.S. government to assassinate U.S. citizens. It was a time when presidential candidates such as Kennedy still thought of themselves as potential “public servants,” rather than potential public assassins.

As Kennedy stated: “So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again, not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.” He then went on to make it clear that he would not allow the pope or the Catholic Church to dictate to him in the realm of public policy, and that he as president would be guided by his conscience and his oath of office, not by fealty to any religious dogmatism.

It is a speech against religious fanaticism.

Importantly for our time, Kennedy invoked “the Virginia statute of religious freedom” authored in 1779 by Thomas Jefferson, who went on to become the third President of the United States. The document was officially titled, “The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” and was not passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786.

If Mr. Santorum thought Senator Kennedy’s speech was bad, Jefferson’s statute would definitely make Mr. Santorum feel the need to heave; it runs contrary to any notion of a theocratic state. The Virginia statute takes issue with “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” For they, “being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.” Jefferson’s document further says “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than [on] our opinions of physics or geometry.”

It is important to place Jefferson’s document and the separation of church and state into its wider historical context. The Inquisition—which brings to mind such memorable torture devices as the rack, and the red hot tong—still existed. A sense of this is found in a biography of Jesuit missionary Juan Salvatierra, published in 1754, just 25 years before Jefferson’s statute for religious liberty. The title page states that it had been “condensed into a brief compendium by Father Juan Antonio de Oviedo,” who was Rector of the College of San Andres in Mexico, “and Censor for the Holy Inquisition.”

It was in response to bloody religious wars in Europe and the horrors of the Holy Inquisition that inspired Jefferson to pen his Statute for Religious Freedom. We ought to wonder why Mr. Santorum would feel the need to throw up upon reading a speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, a speech that implicitly addressed the proven dangers of religious fanaticism.

Being something of a fanatic myself, for etymology, I found the Latin derivation of the name “Santorum.” As an adjective it means variously, “consecrated, sacred, inviolable, venerable, august, divine, holy, pious, and just.” As a noun, it is “establisher; one who enacts.” Given his nauseating statement about Senator Kennedy’s address, isn’t it sensible to wonder what model of society Mr. Santorum is carrying in his heart of hearts?

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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curtj's picture
Why does the Indigenous always start off their conventions and meetings with a prayer to the white mans jesus? Why do we worship a religion that is invoked by the US Supreme Court to legalize the taking and theft of Indigenous lands and resources? Is it part of a loser mentality, locked up in a intellectual box, making decisions based on idealistic, philosophical and intellectual parameters forced on our leaders by the federal and state governments, as a means to forever keep us on our knees begging for what is rightfully ours? I understand you all will refuse to print this, as it will make your white man corporate sponsors angy to have a Indigenous individual think outside of the box foisted on us by thieves and murderers. Indigenous news delivered in a way not to get your white masters mad!
curtj
redwolf48's picture
Former Sen. Santorum is Exhibit A in why Christian missionaries have had so much difficulty in convincing us that their religion is valid (at least those sincere missionaries not operating under the auspices of the government or its army). Sad that the religion, with its many principles similar to our own, must suffer for the deeds of those who claim, in word only, its mantle.
redwolf48