Rick Santorum was a warrior returning home from battle.
In Washington, D.C., 1,000 Catholics gathered on April 19 for the eighth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. This year, it was all about religious liberty. The former Pennsylvania senator — now former Republican presidential contender — was in the audience and was introduced from the main stage, eliciting a warm welcome and a standing ovation.
The embrace stood in contrast to electoral reality, as Santorum did not win over a majority of Catholic voters. In state after state, he won with evangelical voters instead. A number of years ago, in fact, he was named by Time magazine as an influential “evangelical.” What was that about? People will tell you — certainly it’s what they tell me — that it’s because he comes off as “judgmental.” But what does that mean? As far as I can tell, it means that he has clear moral standards, tries to live up to them, and has the courage actually to talk about what he believes. It also means that he is not a “personally opposed” type of Catholic in public life.
“I almost threw up” is the irresistible sound bite from Santorum’s account of reading John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on faith and politics. But that doesn’t quite do justice to what Santorum has had to say on the topic. In that speech to Protestant ministers in Houston two months before the 1960 election, Senator Kennedy tried to ease worries about the fact that, if elected, he would be the country’s first Catholic president. He especially wanted to make sure that people didn’t think he would be taking orders from the Vatican. But in the course of doing something politically prudent, he also helped usher in a new era — the one we’re still living in — in which the separation of church and state is all too often considered, to use Senator Kennedy’s word, “absolute.”
Santorum, like Kennedy, is keen on the founding principle that the president should not attempt to impose his religious views on the nation. In a speech two years ago, he said that “while the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ doesn’t appear in the Constitution, the concept of keeping the government apart from religion does.” And, like Kennedy, he believes that a candidate’s religious affiliation shouldn’t be a disqualifier for office. But the Kennedy speech presented a model for pushing religion to the margins of our public life, a fact that has impoverished a nation that once prized religion as an “indispensable” support to “political prosperity,” as our first president put it.
Charles J. Chaput, the current archbishop of Philadelphia, has said that Kennedy was “sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong.” The 1960 speech, Chaput argued, “began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties.” Kennedy didn’t start the fire, but he “fed” it, as Chaput put it.
The archbishop made these comments in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy speech. Fast forward to today: Religion is in the news, as the Obama administration shows an unprecedented hostility to the free practice of religion in America. As it happens, Catholics are in the driver’s seat on the administration’s latest offensive, or are at least providing political cover: The federal mandate that requires contraceptive, sterilization, and even some abortion coverage for all — with only the narrowest of exceptions — was presented to us by Catholic Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius and has been defended by former Scranton altar boy Joe Biden.
Which presents the central question: Are we a people who believe that truly living as believers — being fully integrated persons who truly practice their faith — is good for society? One archbishop declared at the prayer breakfast that “merely tolerating religion with hostility is not religious freedom.” The word the current administration uses is “accommodation.” Which leads to another question this election year: When exactly did we become a nation that merely “accommodates” religious freedom?
Catholics have also been featured in recent headlines discussing budgetary matters, with left-wing Catholics opposing the Paul Ryan budget plan and Congressman Ryan defending his ideas as a prudential application of the Catholic social thought he holds dear. It’s a healthy conversation when it is sincere and not just a cynical distraction, and it is useful if it reinvigorates our belief as a people that the nation is enriched by participants in our civic, economic, and political life who take their beliefs seriously.
Rick Santorum’s primary campaign represented a renewal of this healthy integration of faith in our politics. He spoke as one who has confidence in a Constitution that does not consider itself God but protects the dignity of man. He spoke with the authentic populism of one who as a public servant takes his vocational discernment seriously. At a time when the religion of secularism threatens to overcome our state — just as it has in many ways our culture — we’re better for Santorum’s run. We’re more American for it, if we — believers and non-believers alike — follow his lead in not only protecting but actually welcoming the flourishing of religion in America. Fifty years from now, Santorum’s repudiation of what was wrong with the Kennedy approach will be hailed as a game changer for the role of religion in American life — or as a warning we failed to heed.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.