Santorum Goes For Gold In Oppression Olympics

So Rick Santorum was being interviewed on "This Week" yesterday, and he said that when he read John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech in Houston to a group of Protestant ministers, he "almost threw up." The context for Kennedy's speech was that the man who would become America's first Catholic president was being subjected to a venomous campaign of religious hatred, in which people like the men in that audience were telling voters that if Kennedy were elected, he would be nothing but a tool of the Vatican, doing the Pope's dastardly bidding instead of what was in the best interest of Americans. So Kennedy gave this speech, in which he asserted that he believed in an absolute separation between church and state, for the protection of both. The ministers in attendance, most of whom considered the Catholic Church an un-Christian abomination, were unmoved. The Kennedy campaign quickly cut ads excerpting the speech, which they used to rally Catholic voters. But here's how Santorum described his horror at Kennedy's message:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.

Of course, Kennedy said nothing of the sort. Quite the opposite, in fact—he said that no one should be denied public office because of their religion, and that he believed in an America "where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." The problem Rick Santorum has with Kennedy's message is this: If you're a religious minority, then official neutrality in matters of religion is a guarantor of freedom. But if you're in the majority, then protection isn't what you need. Here's the part of Kennedy's speech that I think really gave Santorum the dry heaves:

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been -- and may someday be again -- a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, 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.

First off, Kennedy characterizes oppression as something that the majority does to minorities, not something that happens to the majority when they are kept from imposing their views on others. The latter is the kind of oppression people like Rick Santorum are concerned with. Racial discrimination, from their perspective, is something that happens to white people, and religious discrimination is something that can only happen to Christians. And the idea that we would refrain from disdain and division? Are you kidding me? Disdain and division is the lifeblood of Rick Santorum's politics.

Back when the War On Christmas was still going strong, Supreme Allied Commander Bill O'Reilly would sometimes be asked whether it was really offensive and insulting to see the words "Happy Holidays" on a store display. After all, it wasn't as if the sign said "To Hell With You, Jesus!" It was just a neutral expression wishing everyone happiness. Yes!, O'Reilly would insist. "Happy Holidays" is deeply, deeply offensive to Christians!

Ridiculous? Borderline insane? Sure. But what drives it is the idea that if I don't have the ability to force my beliefs on you and everyone else, then I am oppressed. Bill O'Reilly would never assert that Muslims are oppressed by signs that say "Happy Holidays" and not "Happy Eid." Why not? Well ... Muslims aren't, you know, us! So when institutions like stores or the government take a neutral stance—in other words, not favoring the majority's beliefs or preferences—then they have done something brutal and oppressive.

The idea of oppression is incredibly powerful in certain circles these days—among conservatives in general, and among white evangelicals in particular. Conservatives are oppressed by liberals, white people are oppressed by minorities, Christians are oppressed by government doing the bidding of militant secularists. These beliefs may be absurd, but they are genuinely felt. And the people who feel them are the ones Rick Santorum is talking to.


One aspect of JFK's speech that has long been forgotten is that a fair amount of anti-Catholicism in the 1950s came from liberals. What was originally Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State saw the major threat to separation as the Catholic Church; the most prominent anti-Catholic tract of the 1950s, American Freedom and Catholic Power,* was written by an associate editor at The Nation. I was raised Southern Baptist, and read a lot of anti-Catholic tracts in my voracious childhood search for reading matter; what I remember most about those tracts was the degree to which they assimilated that liberal critique; I couldn't imagine them being published by the present-day SBC, which has become as authoritarian as the old RCC ever was. And the RCC was indeed quite conservative and authoritarian in the 1950s. I think that the major things that's changed for liberals is that with, first, Vatican II and, second, the full assimilation of the older ethnic immigrants into all of American life, [and latterly the pedophilia crisis] the hold of the hierarchy has been weakened. Most modern American Catholics look a lot like mainline Protestants, and actually less "Catholic" than a lot of evangelicals.

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