Disgraced former Senator Rick Santorum grabbed headlines yesterday by saying he was “frankly appalled” by President Kennedy’s “radical” statements during the 1960 campaign, which amounted to the following, now sadly somewhat controversial but succinct statement of a basic, foundational principle: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Jack Kennedy is now one of America’s favorite former presidents. Nevertheless, says Santorum, for JFK’s sins, “Jefferson is spinning in his grave.”
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.
It’s a hallmark of the tea party’s de facto religion — ancestor worship of the founding generation — that its adherents in fact have no idea what the Founders believed, or what they fought for. Santorum demonstrates and compounds that ignorance on the pages of other papers, in a long screed ably taken down elsewhere, but to that let us add some. Jefferson was a deist, openly hostile to organized religion (and especially Catholicism) as it was practiced in his time, whose approach to the Bible was precisely River Tam’s [YouTube]: to tear out the pages that don’t make sense, resulting in a slimmer, simply moral document. It’s for this sin that the Santorums of Texas eliminated Jefferson from the curriculum.
Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was very real, very present in the early Republic, and defined how he saw his position: as a temporal officer, with responsibilities exclusively to the office, and no higher power. Hence, for example, Jefferson’s remarkable decision to forgo a thanksgiving prayer, for fear of converting the early Presidency into some American pontifex maximus. That understanding should control today.
We elect legislators to serve the people, the office, and the Constitution. Not God. In discharging that role, legislators must exercise moral judgment, a task that will often require reference to religious morality. That’s fine, and moreover, unavoidable. But legislators should not be in the business of making legislative decisions exclusively to appease their favored interpretation of their favored deity. Where the law of the land and the principles of the Constitution point in one direction, and God, as interpreted by man, points in another, the former should always control, as a function of the oath of office, and the basic principles of democracy.
We expect that God will guide our magistrates, our courts, and our nation. But how vain to imagine he needs our help to do so?