In 1960, a young man named John Fitzgerald Kennedy wanted to be the president of the United States. He had a lot going for him including good looks, a ton of charisma and the backing of a very rich and powerful family.
But John had a problem. He was Catholic, and back then some Americans were concerned that if a Catholic were elected president he just might take his marching orders from the Pope. To address those concerns, Kennedy gave a famous speech on what he thought the relationship should be between the church and the state. Here’s a quote from that speech:
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, 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; 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 religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
I think that’s just the right attitude for a man who wants to be president of a religiously diverse country like ours. A president should represent all American citizens without prejudice, not just the people who go to the same church he does.
But not everyone agrees. One person who does not agree with President Kennedy’s view on religion and government is Rick Santorum, another Catholic who is running for president this year and is currently doing quite well in the Republican primaries.
Santorum (who has directly disagreed with the sentiments expressed in Kennedy’s speech on more than one occasion) is very upfront about how his Catholic beliefs influence his legislative actions. He opposes gay marriage, of course, and supports the outlawing of abortion in all cases. That’s pretty standard stuff for Republicans these days. But he’s also spoken out against prenatal medical screening tests (which he believes may encourage women to have abortions) and has said that states should have the right to ban contraception.
Lately he’s even taken to directly criticizing President Obama’s theological viewpoints. Obama might be a Christian, Santorum speculates, but if so, he’s using the wrong interpretation of the Bible to inform his public policy decisions.
Apparently he thinks Obama wasn’t reading Genesis correctly when he came up with his environmental policies, for example. (Please don’t ask me to explain this.)
Santorum’s strategy seems to be paying off for him, at least in the GOP primaries. But the primaries are heavily influenced by the most enthusiastic social conservatives, and some of the Republican power brokers are getting nervous about how Santorum’s antics would play in a general election where moderate and independent voters end up making the difference. I think they have good reason to be nervous.
Polls indicate that about 25 percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholics, 50 percent as Protestant Christians, 15 percent have no religious affiliation at all, and 5 percent are members of non-Christian religions. Santorum would obviously have a hard time winning over the 20 percent of Americans who aren’t Christians, but with his stance against contraception and prenatal screenings and his apparent need to justify public policy decisions based on his interpretation of the Bible, I think he’s also bound to lose a lot of Christians who don’t think theocracy is such a swell idea.
I do not see a path to victory in the general election for Santorum, and sadly I’m having a hard time seeing a path to victory for the Republican Party in 2012. I believe people are ready for a change (I know I am), but the Republican primary looks like a beauty contest where no one can get through the talent portion of the competition without breaking their leg or setting their own hair on fire.
Could we please get a do-over?
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.