Ruling religion: What separation of church and state really means

Politicians seem to enjoy retracting one day what they felt so strongly the week before, as exemplified by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s remarks on Feb. 26. He said that a famous 1960 speech by then-presidential candidate J.F. Kennedy about freedom of religion made him want to throw up.

Santorum said later in the week that he wished he had not said those words. Nevertheless, the media flurry over the original statement provides an opportunity to examine again a common debate in American politics: What is the relationship supposed to be between religion and politics?

The answer is not simple, but the Threefold Advocate believes that if Santorum had looked beyond the statement he disagreed with so strongly he would have found much common ground with Kennedy. Santorum’s contention with Kennedy arose from the latter’s thesis statement that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Both men seem to argue for the same end result: a country which is not ruled by one religious institution. Kennedy came to this point by assuring his audience that the Catholic Church would not dictate his actions as president. Santorum urged that people of all faith beliefs be given access to the square of public discourse.

Where Santorum missed the mark was in taking Kennedy’s line and lifting it out of the context of the whole rest of the speech. Kennedy was not saying that religious principles had no place in politics, but rather that religious bodies must not be allowed to control government. The Threefold Advocate agrees with both Kennedy and Santorum on these points.

America is not a theocracy. It was never intended to be. No, it is not a Christian nation. It is a nation founded on Christian principles—a fact which should be considered—but that does not mean that governmental offices or religious practice should be limited to or excluded from Christians.

The Threefold Advocate believes that both Kennedy and Santorum would be disturbed if one particular religious faith took over the vehicle of American government and used it for its own purposes. Government’s job is to enable a country’s citizens to live peaceably with one another, not to dictate what religious views one holds. In areas of morality this distinction can become murky. But if everyone would take a deep breath and step back, we believe Americans would see that they share more in common than they typically recognize.