Righteous rhetoric

Recent righteous political rhetoric has made it easy to forget the time when religion — specifically, America’s anti-Catholic bias — was used to cast John F. Kennedy as a scary “other” so beholden to the pope as to threaten America’s democracy. Recognizing the importance of making his allegiance to our Constitution’s separation and balance of church and state clear, Kennedy declared himself the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, not the Catholic candidate for president.

Fifty-one years later, Rick Santorum has based his candidacy as a social conservative on affirming himself as a Catholic candidate for president, using it as an “I’m one of you” message to court conservative voters. These affirmations have also raised not-so-subtle questions about whether Mitt Romney and President Obama are religious enough in the “right” way. And this week, congressional Republicans will again abuse their political power to attack Obama in the name of “religious freedom” when Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on her agency’s budget and the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing, “The HHS Mandate Versus Religious Liberty” (hopefully including women and opposing views this time).

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When asked about these issues over the weekend, Santorum said he doesn’t believe in an America “where the separation of church and state is absolute,” doubling down on his earlier criticism that Obama’s agenda is “not based on the Bible.” These comments echo a 2010 speech in which he argued that while some saw Kennedy’s efforts to reassure the nation his Catholicism would not rule his presidency, it actually was responsible for the beginning of religious people being shut out of public debate, and relegating faith to “the lowest rung of interests to be considered when weighing rights against one another.” And that President Kennedy, Santorum said, “laid the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left and its political arms like the ACLU and the People for the American Way. This has and will continue to create dissension and division in this country as people of faith increasingly feel like second-class citizens.” 

As Santorum passionately pointed out, faith groups have played a constructive role in many of America’s movements for social justice and civil rights, as they do today in advocating for humane immigration laws and protection from disenfranchisement — even while, at times, they have played a destructive role in opposing the civil rights of gay people to marry and women to make their own healthcare decisions. 

It’s unlikely that Santorum and others would include how American Muslims must have felt when their efforts to open a center to promote religious tolerance near Ground Zero were denounced with suggestions they shouldn’t do so in a place where non-Muslims could be offended. Or the divisive impact of anti-Shariah law measures, designed to stoke fear and anger rather than promote understanding, being passed across the country by Republican legislatures. Or congressional hearings shutting women out of speaking on issues that affect their bodies, or Muslim American leaders and counterterrorism experts excluded from speaking about their community and the full array of domestic terrorism threats. 

At the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama eloquently articulated the modern balance of keeping the public square open to all sides, and the role our personal beliefs can have on our actions, while maintaining the separate powers of church and state our Constitution intended. Our elected leaders must be people of faith who serve in a role — 
without using that role to serve their faith.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.