Santorum Should Take a Tip from JFK

On the eve before the Michigan primary, with polls showing Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues is hurting him with voters, this is what the candidate chose to say on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by [President] Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

At the Washington Examiner, Conn Carroll rightly points out:

Rick Santorum should be talking about his economic agenda today. He has an op-ed titled, “My Economic Freedom Agenda,” in today’s Wall Street Journal laying out a perfectly conservative 10-point plan. But nobody is going to be talking about it.

Instead, people will be talking about Santorum’s appearance on ABC News‘ “ThisWeek,” where host George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum if he stood by comments he made just last October criticizing President Kennedy’s speech on religion on politics. In that College of Saint Mary Magdalen speech, Santorum said of Kennedy’s speech, “Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.”

If you’ve never heard Kennedy’s speech, take Santorum’s advice and read it over. It may make Santorum “want to throw up,” but it’s actually a compelling defense of religious liberty. In fact, the speech provides a blueprint for what Santorum should be saying to steer the race away from religious issues and back to the serious concerns of our day: the deficit, a nuclear Iran and unemployment.

As Carroll notes, if only Santorum would use a line like this from Kennedy the next time he’s asked about his views on birth control:

“While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election…These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.”

Moreover, Kennedy’s views on the separation of church and state are uncontroversial. He didn’t deny religion played a major role in shaping our country, or that issues of conscience are often decided on religious lines. But he does reject the notion that the leadership of one religion (in his case, Catholicism) should be able to control the president’s actions:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

If Santorum opposes this, as he told Stephanopoulos, he needs to be more specific about what he’s disputing. Does he believe the U.S. president should take orders from the leaders of his religion? Does he believe the president should make decisions based on the rulings of religious bodies, rather than his own personal conscience? This is something voters need to know before pulling the lever for Santorum.