For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).
This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.
This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,
But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.
And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.
So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.
True that Rick.
But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:
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.
That is the kind of America in which I believe.
Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.
And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.