Posts Tagged First Amendment

In politics, some things never change

When Rick Santorum said he wanted to “throw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech “The Religion Issue in American Politics,” it was, to say the least, controversial. How could a Catholic presidential candidate be so disgusted by the only Catholic president’s campaign statement on religion? Santorum thought Kennedy was trying to subvert religion and, as I shall try to explain, this is not the first time that mistake has been made. However, in today’s highly polarized social climate, it may have very different consequences.

Kennedy gave his speech on April 21, 1960 to answer anti-Catholic statements. His opponents argued that Kennedy would always put his religion first and thus would not represent the values of the majority of Americans. Kennedy answered with an endorsement of religious plurality. “For voters are more than Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They make up their minds for many diverse reasons, good and bad. To submit the candidates to a religious test is unfair enough – to apply it to the voters themselves is divisive, degrading and wholly unwarranted,” Kennedy said. Bringing religion into a presidential election only created false divisions among people who voted for a variety of reasons, not just religious ones.

Not every American practices the exact same religion, or thinks of everything in religious terms, but Santorum’s reaction to the Kennedy speech is not the first time someone has confused that statement for anti-religious sentiment. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When Jefferson became president, his Federalist opponents used those words against him.

Federalist newspapers published editorials declaring Jefferson an anti-Christian and thus unfit to lead the nation. Again, an endorsement of religious plurality was viewed by some as an attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; in this case, Jefferson’s reference to “twenty gods or no gods” was twisted into proof that Jefferson was either a polytheist pagan or an atheist.

However, the Federalists’ propaganda would probably have been viewed differently in the 1800s than Santorum’s statement is in 2012. Jefferson had worked with the men that eventually became the Federalists to draft the principles of the new American republic; it is unlikely that their positions on religion’s relationship with politics differed enough for the Federalists to honestly argue that Jefferson’s policies threatened Christianity. Instead, this was good ‘ole character assassination, an attempt to paint Jefferson as immoral and thus unfit for the Presidency.

Santorum’s reaction to Kennedy’s speech has a much broader tone. He obviously wasn’t trying to say that Kennedy was immoral or unfit to lead, why would he? Instead, Santorum seemed to be trying to prove his chops as a defender of the faith in a Republican primary where conservative Christian votes matter.

In that context, it’s no wonder Santorum started feeling sick when he read the Kennedy speech, because he is doing exactly what Kennedy warned against: creating false divides based on voter’s religious views. Criticizing candidate Kennedy for acknowledging that people vote for non-religious reasons will only anger those people, and set them against Santorum’s supporters, whose fears of religious persecution are stirred up when the candidate talks about one of his fellow Catholic’s most important speeches as a threat to religious freedom.

The stakes are a lot higher than in Jefferson’s time. The author of the Declaration of Independence could shrug off an attack on his religious views, and return the favor in kind. The Federalists were attacking one man, Santorum was attacking a large segment of the electorate. In politics, some things never change, but the context does.

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Freedom to choose

The recent debate over whether the Obama administration should mandate coverage of contraception under its healthcare overhaul is all about freedom. Obama’s opponents argue that letting women choose birth control would trample the right of Catholic organizations, who don’t believe in birth control, but do employ non-Catholics, to practice their religion.

They have a good point, so I’ve made a list of all the freedoms that every party involved (Catholic employers, their employees, insurance companies) is being denied by the administration’s insistence on contraception:

Catholic organizations will have the freedom to practice their religion without persecution, and the added freedom to force those beliefs on non-Catholic employees and insurance companies.

Insurance companies will have the freedom to spend thousands of dollars per pregnancy, instead of being forced to save money and give their customers options.

The employees will have the freedom to choose pregnancy, or to not have sex.

If the employees do choose to have sex, they will have the freedom to care for a child regardless of their marital or financial status, or give the child up for adoption.

Either way, women will have the freedom to spend nine months pregnant, whether they want the child or not. That gives them the added freedom to possibly lose their job after they take time off to give birth.

If employees choose to keep their children, they have the freedom to choose where to work and live in order to create the happiest, most fulfilling life for themselves and their children. Except they won’t want to take any risks, like taking time off to finish college, or speaking up about unfair working conditions, because they could lose their job. They have a child to support, after all.

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