Opinion Columns & Blogs

James L. Evans: Church and state tensions issue nothing new

In September of 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for president of the United States. Opposition forces had decided to make his Catholic faith an issue. Our country had never had a Catholic president before. The contrived controversy questioned whether Kennedy would follow the Constitution or the Vatican.

What his opponents didn’t understand about Kennedy was his keen understanding of the Constitution. While his faith was important to him, and to his family, his commitment to the principles of a secular government was equally important. Kennedy had a firm grasp of Jeffersonian and Madisonian concepts of the separation of church and state.

Speaking to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Kennedy said, with some degree of eloquence, “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.”

I bring this up because another Catholic politician who is likely to seek the White House in 2012 is saying he is appalled at Kennedy’s position on the separation of church and state.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said in Massachusetts last week that Kennedy’s stance on church and state was “radical” and had done “great damage.”

According to CBS News, Santorum is reported to have said, “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.”

The erosion of the principles of separation of church and state is a serious matter. Kennedy had it right when he said, “I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty; nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so.”

But apparently those checks and balances are not important to Santorum and some others.

I’m just curious, and maybe some enlightened political luminary can shed some light on this: What is America’s official religion?

Obviously Christians dominate simply by sheer numbers. But which brand? Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Pentecostals -- whose version of the Christian faith is the official American religion?

And let’s not overlook Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and that significantly 15 percent of unbelievers -- all legitimately American citizens.

Now don’t get me wrong, faith is important to me. I’m a Baptist and we Baptists take our faith with great seriousness.

But here’s the rub. You get three Baptists in a room and you’ve got five opinions. Who is going to speak politically for all Baptists -- or for any other faith, for that matter?

This is where Jefferson and Madison served us well. By separating the work of the church from the work of the state, they made it possible for America to be a thriving cauldron of religious freedom, boiling and cooking in a wonderful variety. Religion thrives in this kind of environment -- and has for nearly 250 years.

Kennedy understood this very well, Santorum doesn’t.