What Santorum Got Wrong About JFK’s Religion Speech

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Writing in the new issue of TIME, Jon Meacham challenges Santorum’s account of Kennedy’s views on Church and State:

Santorum suggests that Kennedy offered a secular call to arms, banishing religion from American life in ways that believers like Santorum are still crusading to reverse. Kennedy’s address, however, doesn’t say what Santorum wishes it to have said. It called for an end to bigotry, not an end to faith in politics. “Finally,” Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals … and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews … 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.”

In fact, JFK is a fairly good model of how religious values can–and should–inform the actions of a political leader. The Judeo-Christian vision of the sanctity of the individual and of the value of liberty shaped Kennedy’s approaches to the Cold War and ultimately to civil rights. From Lincoln to T.R. to FDR to JFK to Reagan, wise Presidents have not used politics to advance theological agendas but rather deployed theology in the service of statecraft. That’s the work we should hope happens atop a sturdy wall between church and state.

Juliet Sorensen, daughter of Kennedy’s speechwriter (and, in interest of disclosure, my cousin), points to the historical references in the 1960 Houston address:

“It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. … This is 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 — and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo.

“For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey — but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.”

Read Meacham’s full column in TIME, now online and hitting newsstands Friday.

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