Santorum Disqualifies Himself for the Presidency

At this point, most people who cover the Republican presidential campaign—or Republican politics in general—are accustomed to Rick Santorum and his right-wing social conservatism. Even still, this deserves way, way more attention than it’s currently receiving.

“Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up,” Santorum told an audience at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen.

In an ABC News interview Sunday, George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum why the speech would make him throw up, to which the candidate replied:

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute,” he said. “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 visions of our country.”

The speech in question is John F. Kennedy’s famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, where he declared his belief “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—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.

Part of me isn’t sure that Santorum actually understands Kennedy’s argument here. As he later said to Stephanopoulos, “What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Of course, Kennedy didn’t say that at all. People of faith have always had an important role in American politics, and no one wants to diminish that. But public policy isn’t built on religious belief, and if people of faith want a role in the public sphere, they have to argue their position with reason and evidence, not religious dogma. This is a quintessentially American value, affirmed by nearly every president in this nation’s history.

On the other hand, in his initial response, Santorum is clear about his objective: he wants an America where the institutional church is involved in the “operation of the state.” If that’s the case, and Santorum didn’t misspeak, then the former Pennsylvania senator is far more radical than anyone previously realized. His administration would attempt to defy precedent by, in Kennedy’s words, making the presidency an “instrument” of one particular religious group.

Given the extent to which this country was founded on a commitment to religious freedom, I don’t think it’s much to say that yesterday’s interview should disqualify Rick Santorum from running for the presidency. Unfortunately, judging from the overall non-response he’s received from Republicans, Democrats and the press, that’s not going to happen.

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