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What Makes Him Sick

I keep saying that my Party tends to nominate people for the Presidency who really know how to connect with the populace on religion, people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—and the Other Party tends to nominate people who simply aren't comfortable with religious language, people like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.

Of course, this is preposterously false, but it's every bit as true as the opposite, the conventional wisdom that the Other Party has some monopoly on faith talk, or that my Party just isn't very good at it. Of course the victors will have connected better with the American People on religion, as they will on most other topics, and the causality is probably backwards. People connect with the winning candidate because the candidate is winning, and that's terrific for making an audience receptive. It's also true that (f'r'ex) Bill Clinton used to read Scripture in his bedroom, Jimmy Carter is I think still teaching Sunday School, and of course Barack Obama got in a lot of trouble for going to church on Sunday. On the other hand, John Kerry simply would not stop going to Mass, even when every communion would provoke a news story about the protesters and bishops who wanted to deny the man, and his churchgoing didn't mean that he communicated well with people about religion or anything else#8212;tho' I think we would remember much better communication skills had he won Ohio.

I bring this up because The 1960 Houston Speech is back in the news. That's the speech where John F. Kennedy said that (a) Catholics and Jews should be eligible for the Presidency, and (2) that should he be elected president, he would not request or accept instruction on public policy from the Pope. And further, that he believes in an America “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”.

Rick Santorum read the speech, he said, and it made him want to throw up. He reiterated that nausea on ABC's This Week yesterday, and I'll quote:

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. 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. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent (ph) at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison—

I really wish George Stephanopoulos had not interrupted him there. I don't think he was going to tell my favorite anecdote about James Madison and the separation of church and state, and I am pulling the quote from The Founders Constitution, where he argued that we should not let people put on their Census forms that their profession is 'minister' because the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who, and who are not, ministers of the gospel. Still, I think we have enough, here, to go on with: Mr. Santorum believes that the speech President Kennedy gave articulated a vision where faith was not allowed in the public square. And he did so, calling himself a Catholic and going to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to do it.

Now, it turns out that Rick Santorum is participating in a tradition of interpreting this speech as denying that a pluralist society includes people discussing their faith in the public square. It's worth looking at Romney v. Kennedy by Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, which lays out the Conservative interpretation:

Kennedy speaks in absolutes. For him, religion is purely one’s own “private affair” and has nothing to say to the great political issues of the day—the spread of Communism, poverty, health care, education, patriotism. These are “real issues,” Kennedy says, and “they are not religious issues.”

This isn't crazy. It's a misinterpretation, I think, bearing in mind that the speech was given in 1960, and that was before Engel and Abington ruled (correctly) that public schools could not include Bible-reading and liturgical prayers in their curricula. The furthest I could go with interpretation is that President Kennedy may have felt that faith was too large a part of the public policy sphere at that time, a time when the public school day regularly began with Scripture, and when no Catholic had ever been elected to the Presidency, and many people argued, in the public sphere, that only Protestants should be President. Personally, I think that the speech is saying that religion is, as he says, a private matter, and that one's policy positions will of course be informed by one's religious teachings, but that when it comes to making workable policy, you need actual policy arguments. The spread of Communism may be a religious issue, in the sense that it will affect religious practice and so on, but that doesn't mean that the policies to be implemented to halt the spread of Communism are matters of religious dicta. If you can't convince people of other faith traditions or none that your policy is a good policy, regardless of its religious influences, then you are doing it wrong.

Which is fundamental to our concept of pluralism. Mr. Santorum seems to want a kind of Marketplace of Ideas for religion—some Gentle Readers of this blog have gently mocked YHB for believing at all in a Marketplace of Ideas, but I certainly don't believe in a Marketplace of Ideas for religion. I certainly don't think that there is One True Religion, and I don't think that everybody getting together to argue out their religions is likely to lead to anything good. I don't thinking people of different religions coming to the public square and making their case on religious grounds is at all in keeping with the pluralist idea. I mean, it seems obvious to me that what happens then is that the people with minority beliefs lose, and policies are imposed by the religious majority, based on that religious majority, rather than being based on policy preference. If, instead, people of faith come to their policy conclusions, and then leave their Scripture behind and come into the public square to argue policy cases on policy grounds, then we meet more equally, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh and Hindu, atheist and pantheist and monotheist, to discuss how to live together without adopting one another's religions.

This is what Rick Santorum meant, I can only infer, in his own Houston speech (which alas was given to a friendly audience of co-religionists rather than (as the 1960 speech) to a skeptical if not hostile group outside his faith tradition, a very telling change, in YHB's opinion) made on the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy's, when he said “All of us have an obligation to justify our positions based upon something that is accessible to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs.” Or: “A vibrant, fully clothed public square; a marketplace of believers and non-believers where truth could be proffered and reasoned, and differences civilly tolerated.” This vision, then, is not different from John Kennedy's. Where it differs from what I understand John Kennedy to be saying is that Rick Santorum's vision is of “a mutually strengthening interface of church and state”; John Kennedy does not seem to say it is the job of the state to strengthen the church. Any church. Nor do I.

I do think it's worth talking about all this—that's what I want to have hauled in to the public sphere. I want to make it clear whether we, as a country, want to keep that public sphere free of religious argument—not that there is no place for religious argument, but that the discussion of policy for us all is discussion for us all, “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 Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

That, it seems, make Rick Santorum want to throw up. Which is why, I think, Rick Santorum is one of those Republicans who just don't seem to connect to Americans with religious talk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.