At a time when former Senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic from Pennsylvania, doesn't hesitate to suggest that a Protestant president has adopted a "phony theology," one not really "based on the Bible," it is worth reexamining the relation between religion and politics. This relation has been radically transformed since the 1960s. Fifty-two years ago, 150 prominent evangelical ministers gathered in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., at the urging of Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. They declared that Catholicism was not truly compatible with democracy: the Roman church was not open to freedom of consciousness; it was authoritarian and its doctrine incompatible with the idea of a genuine separation of church and state. "Rome," argued one minister, was "little better than Moscow" and the American democratic culture would be at risk should a Catholic win the election.
In response to such attacks, John F. Kennedy chose to detach himself from all the controversial aspects of his Catholic faith. He insisted that he was not "a Catholic candidate" running for the presidency, but a "Democratic party's candidate who happens to be Catholic." In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, attended by about 300 Southern evangelical ministers (Sept. 7, 1960), he praised the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Jefferson's Virginia Statute for religious freedom. He did not hesitate to refer to intimate matters such as birth control, but chose a remarkably un-Catholic perspective:
"Whatever issue may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision ... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regards to outside religious pressures or dictates."
And he concluded his talk with a Jeffersonian profession of faith: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," echoing both Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut (1802) and Justice Hugo Black decision in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947). As Justice Black put it, in citing Jefferson: "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable." It is well recognized by American church historians that Kennedy's Houston speech was a key event in the secularization of American politics: The path to the White House was opened to all candidates, irrespective of their religious affiliations.
Forty-seven years later, in a speech on "Faith in America" delivered at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas (Dec. 6, 2007), Mitt Romney specifically referred to Kennedy's speech: "Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion."
Both Kennedy, a Catholic, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, belonged to minority religions, which were looked at with suspicion by mainstream Protestant leaders and ministers. But Romney drew conclusions that were the opposite of Kennedy's. Contrary to Kennedy, Romney declared that religion should not be seen as "merely a private affair with no place in public life." References to God should remain "on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places." Romney concluded: "I will not separate us from the 'God who gave us liberty.' Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage." In short, there should be no real separation between church and state.
The other Republican candidates have defended a similar argument. In Iowa last December, Rick Santorum claimed that Obama and his friends have "secular values that are antithetical to the basic principles of our country." He even argued that Obama's secularism reminded him of the French Revolution and its horrific outcome: the guillotine. In the same vein, Newt Gingrich denounced the horrors of "Obama's secular socialist machine" and argued, against all evidence, that he was "the most radical president in American history." This reasoning was pursued by Romney who pretended that Obama was engaged in an all-out "war on religion." It was pushed to its most extreme limits when Santorum told a New Hampshire audience last October that he "almost threw up" when he read Kennedy's Houston speech. Kennedy, according to him, "threw his faith under the bus in that speech."
This reversal of viewpoints on the role of religion in politics, from Kennedy's Houston speech to the present position defended by the Republican candidates, points to the danger of calling into question the existence of a wall of separation between church and state. If politics cannot be separated from religion, the political debate about the common good and the future of the U.S. democracy is likely to turn into an endless scholastic babble about abortion, contraception, prenatal testing, fertilization treatments and "aspirin between the knees" as a form of abstinence. In attacking the Obama's administration decision to require faith-based institutions to cover the cost of contraception (before Obama's "compromise"), conservatives, Republican candidates and Republican Congressional leaders made it a constitutional issue: Obama had violated the "Free Exercise clause" of the First Amendment, concerning freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. But conservative Republicans forget that the First amendment has a dual purpose: it also prohibits support for an official or privileged religion as stated in the "Establishment clause." The tension between the two clauses of the First Amendment is far from being resolved and Justices of the Supreme Court are still struggling with this dilemma.
The Southern strategy of the Republican Party gave a prominent place to the political and religious causes defended by white evangelical conservatives. That strategy has been so successful that non-evangelical candidates -- two Catholics and a Mormon -- feel obliged to behave as if they had been socialized in a Southern, fundamentalist Protestant environment. Excessive or opportunistic professions of faith can only damage the political process when the truth is distorted in the name of religion to the point of absurdity and when the First Amendment is read as if it did not include an Establishment clause.