2012-03-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

A Deep Misunderstanding Of The Establishment Clause
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Being a senior citizen and having been 21 in 1960, the year John F. Kennedy ran for president, I feel some affinity for the man, what he attained and what he might have attained had he been allowed by Lee Oswald to live out his normal life span.

As a minor historian and a keen observer of the political scene, I should not have been surprised by how much politics has changed in the intervening 52 years between Kennedy’s run for the presidency and today, when Rick Santorum seems to remain one of the Republican front-runners by extolling the ideals that would have, in 1960, made Attila the Hun blush.

I was shocked, however, by Santorum’s contention a few weeks ago that he was “sickened” by Kennedy’s assurance to ministers 43 years ago that, if he were elected, he would not impose his Catholic faith on the rest of non- Catholic America.

Kennedy advocated an America “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one is an act against all … the kind of America for which our forefathers died when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less-favored churches – when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom – when they fought at the shrine I visited today – the Alamo.”

He ended by assuring that the Pope would not rule America if a Catholic holds the presidency.

That is the speech that “sickened” Rick Santorum.

Rather than support freedom from religious intolerance, Santorum said, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The First Amendment means the free exercise of religion and that means bringing people and their faith into the public square.”

That comment set off a firestorm among those who believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment sets up a wall between church and state, between the secular and the religious.

That wall is important to keep those who do not belong to the majority religion free from harassment and worse, and our Founding Fathers knew that all too well when they wrote the Bill of Rights. Ted Sorenson was Kennedy’s top advisor and his speech writer. One has to assume that he wrote the speech given to the ministers. His daughter, Juliet, is a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern Law School.

In a letter to the New York Times in the wake of Santorum’s startling speech, she wrote, “Rick Santorum’s assertion that John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Houston ministers makes him ‘throw up’ because Kennedy said faith was not allowed in the public sphere ignores both the spirit and the text of the address. Mr. Santorum would do well to study our country’s history before claiming that it sickens him.”

It’s amazing that Kennedy had to defend his religion and promise not to use the government for religious purposes if he were elected and only a half century later Santorum panders to his constituents by promising that he will bring his religion into government decisions if he is elected.

It’s also amazing how easily Santorum blows off the Founding Fathers and what they saw as a danger to the new nation should religion be a driving force in government.

In the 1785 debates in the Virginia Assembly that led to the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, a proposal was made to align the government with ‘Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’

The clause was overwhelmingly struck down because, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, the assembly wanted to put under “The mantle of [the government’s] protection the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and Mohaometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

According to David Reynolds, a professor at the CUNY graduate school, the founders recognized that throughout our history, alliances between church and state bred only intolerance and bigotry.

Santorum either doesn’t understand the history or he would like a nation where Catholics rule the roost and make everybody bend to the religion’s world view and perception of how things should be.

The Puritans tried it in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in New Haven with a “Bible Commonwealth” governed not by man’s law, but by God’s. Of course, in that time that meant the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches.

Reynolds points out that dissenters to the bible commonwealth were treated rather badly. Baptists were commonly whipped, Quakers had their ears clipped off and often hung in the marketplace to show they had encountered God’s wrath for not believing.

I think that Santorum would approve of that.

Given the history of prosecution, the Founding Fathers came down firmly on the separation of church and state.

They knew what they were doing because some of them had lived through it and others were historians who had first-hand knowledge of what happens when one religion takes hold over a community.

Santorum says he wants “Religious Freedom,” but what he really wants is the laws of the United States to reflect Christian values.

He wants to teach “Intelligent Design” in schools, a veiled attempt to teach Creationism. He wants to do away with women’s reproductive rights because the Catholic Church opposes those rights as immoral. He is not a man for all seasons, as a president should be.

He is a man mired in the 1600s and should be viewed as such by his core constituents. The problem is, they are all back in the 1600s with him.

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