Santorum is Right on JFK and Separation of Church and State

On February 26th, Rick Santorum defended a statement he made last October in which he said that he “almost threw up” when he read John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston address on the role of religion in public life. As a presidential candidate Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith would conflict with his ability to make important national decisions as president independent of the church.

In that speech, Kennedy told America, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” He went on to say, in addition to much more, the following:

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 these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Notice that Kennedy substituted religious views with his own conscience telling him what is in “the national interest.” How is this better than being guided by “religious pressures or dictates”? What is a person’s conscience based on? Are we to believe that what rattles around in someone’s head is a better indicator of moral certitude than religious principles that are anchored in the will of God?

Kennedy set the trend that got all politicians and judges off the hook. They would determine what is moral and immoral without any regard to religion.

Our Founding Fathers did not believe the First Amendment prohibited bringing religion and morality into the national political debate. In fact, they insisted on it. Consider these words from George Washington:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.

John Adams said the following in a speech to the military on October 11, 1798:

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.1

Fisher Ames, one of the framers of the First Amendment, wrote:

Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits . . . it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers.2

Appealing to the First Amendment was no historical help to President Kennedy. The Bill of Rights was “designed to limit the powers of the general government only.”3 It’s purpose was not to separate religion and morality from government.

The Separation of Church and State was already an accepted principle in the 18th century. The First Amendment was designed to keep the national government (“Congress shall make no law. . .”) from legally establishing a national Christian denomination as the “Church of the United States.”

In the end, one person’s conscience is not better or no worse than someone else’s conscience. America does not need a Jiminy Cricket president.

  1. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), 9:229. []
  2. Fisher Ames, An Oration on the Sublime Virtues of General George Washington (Boston: Young & Minns, 1800), 23. []
  3. Brion McClanahan, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (New York: Regnery History, 2012), 182. []