Cues for Throwing Up

On George Stephanopolous’ Sunday show, Rick Santorum expressed that gaggy feeling conservatives get when someone talks about the separation of church and state. Referring specifically to then-candidate John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, Santorum said:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?

This view is frequently thought of as emanating from evangelical organizations like WallBuilders or the classrooms at Liberty University. But Santorum had a Catholic mentor, if not for the precise physical reaction, for the overall contempt for Kennedy and for the Establishment Clause.

Kennedy’s speech is best remembered as a defense to Protestant ministers and others who fretted that a Catholic president would merely carry water for the Vatican while in the White House. Kennedy rebutted those charges by defending the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution.

Two years ago, near the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver and now Archbishop of Philadelphia, returned to Houston and gave his own speech at Houston Baptist University. There, Chaput accused Kennedy of giving a speech that “profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”

Today, Santorum’s (and Chaput’s) reactions to their fellow Catholic’s view reflect a fundamental(ist) shift: evangelical activists do not want to hear that the White House will be free of religious influence; in fact, a White House free of religious influence (conservative religious influence, that is) is something to be reviled, indeed provoking reverse peristalsis. Hence the new ecumenism found in manifestos like the Manhattan Declaration, which appears as a blueprint for the “religious freedom” wars, and in the opposition to the HHS contraception benefit requirement, and in opposition to the jurisprudentially accepted understanding of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

Chaput has made his views clear in other venues. In 2004, he suggested that because abortion was a “foundational” issue, there was only one way a faithful Catholic could vote. In 2008, writing in opposition to Catholics supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy, he charged, “In the United States in 2008, abortion is an acceptable form of homicide. And it will remain that way until Catholics force their political parties and elected officials to act differently.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer demand for a theo-political litmus test. That evangelicals, who once fretted about undue influence of the Vatican over American politics, would now embrace such a view, demonstrates the success of the religious right’s ecumenical strategy. Its collective nausea over a Catholic president who defended the separation of church and state is emblematic of how the possibility of Vatican influence on American politics is no longer viewed with suspicion but rather with reverence.

In his 2010 Houston speech, Chaput issued an ecumenical call to action on the “foundational” issue of abortion and others, including “immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children.”

Some of those issues have more resonance than others for Santorum. In a campaign speech earlier this month, he went after the Church over its support for health care reform, saying, “the Catholic Church, for some unknown reason, supported Obamacare, and some of us said, ‘are you crazy?'” Santorum’s ecumenism is more related to party and ideology than it is loyalty to his own church. That speaks volumes about why the church’s support for immigration reform or a social safety net—issues it presses with far less vigor than issues relating to sex and sexuality—does nothing to move Republican opposition.

Chaput criticized Kennedy for starting “the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.” They are not separate, Chaput (and Santorum) insist. Christians have a duty to keep them intertwined, a duty that they erroneously insist is required by the Constitution, but in fact tramples on it. Their claimed ecumenism doesn’t make it any less unconstitutional. “The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label,” Chaput said. “John 14:6 – ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’ – which is so key to the identity of Houston Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of every Catholic who truly understands his faith. Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify the world as his agents. To do that work, we need to be one. Not ‘one’ in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended.”