PRUDEN: The ignorance of Rick Santorum

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s a tiny priest living in Rick Santorum’s trim, toned body, struggling to get out. The rogue priest escaped Sunday and said foolish things.

The candidate most admired for plain speech made it plain and clear that he doesn’t believe in the wall between church and state and doesn’t think much of John F. Kennedy for saying he did.

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he told ABC News. “The idea that church can have no influence or involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

This should cook his goose with conservatives (and everybody else), Catholic and Protestant alike, but it probably won’t. Many voters are as ignorant as Rick Santorum about the plain meaning of the First Amendment. Mr. Santorum, no doubt listening to his inner rogue, says the First Amendment’s guarantee of “the free exercise of religion means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.”

Indeed it does, and the pope, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, all the Methodist and Episcopal bishops, rabbis Orthodox and otherwise, and peaceful imams everywhere have the right to be heard. But none of them has the right, as arbiters of their faith, to compel the president of the United States to make public policy conform to religious doctrine. This is what makes America the exceptional nation. This is what Mr. Santorum appears to not understand.

John F. Kennedy, addressing the concern of the Protestant ministers of Houston in 1963, set the standard for how Catholic candidates for president (and other public office) should answer questions about how his faith would guide his secular presidency.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” JFK said, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote, where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

No one has said it better since, but Mr. Santorum says he read the speech and it “makes me want to throw up.” Heaven probably doesn’t have Wi-Fi connections, and a good thing, because JFK would throw up if he heard Mr. Santorum’s garbled understanding of what he told the preachers in Houston half a century ago.

“Go and read the speech,” Mr. Santorum said. “[He says] ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’ ” But JFK said nothing remotely like that. He expected, of course, to consult his conscience, as all presidents are expected to do, and in his case it would be a conscience informed by faith and the teachings of the Gospel. But he promised to listen to no prelate, however well-intentioned, telling him how he must make public policy. This distinction is so simple that even a caveman would understand it.

The doctrine of separation of church and state is taking a beating this season. In a campaign video, President Obama urges black voters to pressure their churches to support his re-election by getting his messages out via “the faith community.” Voters, he says, should commission themselves “congregation captains.” This is part of the launch of “African Americans for Obama,” a blatant appeal to put race to work on his behalf. “Honkies for Romney” and “Blue-Eyed Devils for Santorum” may be next.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in a tweet, tried to do a job on Mitt Romney’s religion, mocking the Mormon custom of wearing a “temple garment” under regular clothing as a reminder of faith, and telling “Muddle Mouth” Romney to “stick that in your underwear.” He apologized (though not as abjectly as his man routinely apologizes to angry Muslims).

The temptation of any presidential candidate is to do whatever works in a primary, figuring to tone down red-hot rhetoric later. Mr. Santorum may be unique. His appeal is based on saying whatever pops into his head, as long as he pleases his inner priest. If that upsets the congregation, tough. But it’s difficult, for Catholics, Protestants and others alike, to envision a rogue priest presiding over the White House.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Wesley Pruden

Wesley Pruden

Editor Emeritus — American journalist legend and Vietnam War author James Wesley Pruden, Jr. is Editor Emeritus of The Washington Times. Pruden’s first job in the newspaper business dates back to 1951 as a copyboy at the now defunct Arkansas Gazette where he later became a sportswriter and an assistant state editor. In 1982, he joined The Washington Times, four ...

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