Jfk_1961

Santorum is No JFK: A Closer Look at Kennedy's Speech

Fact-checkers were quick to observe how thoroughly Rick Santorum misread John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on religion and politics when the Republican contender declared his nausea over JFK's message on the Sunday talk shows last weekend.  As Brooks Johnson wrote at the Huffington Post: 

Rick Santorum misrepresented what John F. Kennedy said in 1960 about church-state separation. According to Santorum, Kennedy said that religious people could "have no role in the public square" and "should not be permitted … to influence public policy." But Kennedy didn't say those things. He said he wouldn't take orders from the Vatican if elected president.

Indeed, nothing in Kennedy's speech suggests the view that an individual must put aside his religious views when deliberating about political issues.  What commentators haven't seemed to notice is that Kennedy actually advocated the opposite position near the end of the speech: “I will make my decision... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”   

This formulation introduces an ambiguity, which I'll examine below, but one implication is clear: when making tough decisions involving questions of “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject,” Kennedy avows that while he will not do the bidding of the Pope he will consult his own conscience as a guide.  As a Catholic, Kennedy's conscience was formed, in part, around Catholic teachings and principles.  So while insists that he will not be a pawn of the Vatican, he admits that he will base important policy decisions on his religious convictions as they apply to the national interest. 

Sensing an objection arising from his audience, Kennedy then offers an extraordinary promise: 

But if the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

Notice what Kennedy has done here.  By assuring American voters that he will never allow his religious conscience to violate the national interest -- and will remove himself from office if such a conflict were ever to arise -- Kennedy is signaling that his religious conscience will play a robust role in his day-to-day deliberations while in office.  He honors his conscience so highly, in fact, that he would abandon the White House if he ever thought his duties as president might demand that he violate it.  This is an implicit admission that Catholicism will inform the job Kennedy would do as president, unless and until it conflicted with the national interest.  (Though it is worth noting that Kennedy's statement leaves us in a logical loop: if Kennedy's conscience tells him what is in the national interest, as the quotation above directly implies, how could his duty to act on the latter ever possibly violate the former?) 

It is hard to see what in this message makes Santorum want to “throw up," even if he now regrets introducing images of him vomiting into the presidential race.  It is harder to understand what Santorum is talking about when he objects to the purportedly diminished role that piety plays in the public square.  National prayer breakfasts are held the first Thursday of every February, the president declares national days of prayer and both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have taxpayer-funded chaplains.  Santorum himself, speaking on television and on the campaign trail, routinely invokes religious principles -- and uncovers Satan's plan for America -- as he advances his socially conservative agenda.   

But should religion play such an influential role in the public sphere and political discussions?  This debate has occupied philosophers and scholars of religion for two decades, though it must be understood that the dispute resides only in the normative realm of discourse ethics.  No one proposes that religious speech should be legally curtailed in public (or anywhere).  Such a proposal would obviously violate basic free speech guarantees.  The question, rather, is a normative one: should religious individuals use Bible passages and religious teachings when advocating political positions, and if they do, should the rest of us listen? 

Richard Rorty fires the sharpest salvo from the left, claiming that religion is a “conversation stopper” and belongs nowhere in political discussions.  Robert Audi sounds a somewhat less exclusivist note, arguing that while secular reasons need to be offered for all political positions, speakers need not be motivated by purely secular considerations.  Thinking particularly of abolitionists' religious appeals against slavery as early as the 1830s and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s critique of segregation in the South, John Rawls claims that all religious reasoning should be welcome in public discussions as long as “in due course,” individuals also produce “public reasons” that all interlocutors (of whatever religious view, or none) might accept.  The hair-splitting on this issue has been ample, and I engage in some of my own in the first chapter of my book Israel's Higher Lawwhere I argue that religious reasoning belongs in political discussions as long as it is directed toward a public (not a sectarian) value and does not advocate policies that restrict citizens' liberty. 

Here is where Santorum's religious discourse fails to satisfy legitimate norms of public debate.  Never in the course of his expression of religious principles does he acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about, say, the ethics of abortion rights or whether women who work at Catholic institutions should be able to enjoy the same health care coverage as women who work at non-Catholic institutions.  Nowhere in his rhetoric do we find the nonestablishment principle of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from recognizing a single true church or establishing policies exclusively on the basis of particular (or general) religious principles.  Nowhere does he acknowledge the fact of religious diversity in the United States. 

Even with his gross distortions of Kennedy's message, Santorum does us all a service by reminding the American people of John F. Kennedy's remarkable speech from over a half-century ago.  If Mitt Romney becomes the GOP nominee, we are about to embark upon another presidential race with a candidate whose religion elicits suspicion and denigration.  Romney would be wise to think more like JFK, and less like Santorum, as his Mormonism comes closer to the spotlight.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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