One of the many unfortunate things about Rick Santorum being a major candidate for the Republican nomination is that the man may be the most aggressively-hostile mainstream candidate we’ve seen in years. There’s nothing presidential about the hectoring tone that characterizes all of his speeches. It’s like if you take John McCain throwing a tantrum and make that your candidate. The consequence is that even when Santorum is saying something worthwhile, he says it in such a way that it’s impossible to take him seriously. So we have his comments this weekend:
““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?
“That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.”
Thankfully, there are more measured thinkers able to disentangle the germ of a worthwhile idea from the histrionic language. Andrew Sullivan:
This has long been the theocon argument; it was the crux of what I identified as the core Republican problem in “The Conservative Soul“. It is not social conservatism, as lazy pundits call it. It is a radical theocratically-based attack on modern liberal democracy; and on modernity as a whole. It would conserve nothing. It would require massive social upheaval, for example, to criminalize all abortion or keep all gay couples from having any publicly acknowledged rights or status. Then think of trying to get women back out of the workplace or contraception banned – natural, logical steps from this way of thinking. This massive change is radical, not conservative. It regards the evolution of American society these past few decades as literally the work of the Father of Lies, not the aggregate reflection of a changing society. It is at its essence a neo-Francoite version of America, an America that was not the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, but an America designed to destroy what the theocons regard as the catastrophe of the Enlightenment….
This is Santorum’s fear-laden vision. Which is why he is not a man of questioning, sincere faith and should not be flattered as such. He is a man of the kind of fear that leads to fundamentalist faith, a faith without doubt and in complete subservience to external authority. There is a reason he doesn’t want many kids to go to college. I mean: when we already know the truth, why bother to keep seeking it? And if we already know the truth, why are we not enforcing it as a matter of law in a country founded on Christian principles? It is not religious oppression if it is “the way things are supposed to be”, by natural law. In fact, a neutral public square, in his mind, is itself religious oppression.
We can also see here the collision of the Second Vatican Council and the current hierarchy. Kennedy was a Catholic of another era, unafraid of modernity, interested in other paths to God, publicly humble and cheerful, privately devout and deeply connected to others of all faiths and none. Santorum is of a different kind: authoritarian, deeply suspicious of freedom when it leads to disobedience of the Papacy’s diktats, and publicly embracing a religious identity as his core political one.
Also, Rod Dreher:
There is a substantial and appealing case to be made for why JFK erred in his famous 1960 Houston speech about religion and politics, and why the legacy of that speech — delivered in an America that was far more anti-Catholic than it is today — helped created what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square” (= a public realm where religion has no meaningful place in the dialogue)….
The headlines today, predictably, are about Rick Santorum’s queasy stomach. Once again, Road Rage Rick swings a culture-war broadaxe when a stiletto is required. He sounds anything but presidential when he talks like this. To be clear, the problem I see is not that he’s wrong about JFK’s speech and its effects; it’s that he articulates his objection in crude, semi-hysterical language that’s easy to caricature and to dismiss.
In his post, Dreher quotes at length an address by Archbishop Charles Chaput dealing with this issue:
For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring. But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new. He “‘secularize[d]’ the American presidency in order to win it.” In other words, “[P]recisely because Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of [American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to ‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially his own – in order to win that office.”6
In Massa’s view, the kind of secularity pushed by the Houston speech “represented a near total privatization of religious belief – so much a privatization that religious observers from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant fence commented on its remarkable atheistic implications for public life and discourse.” And the irony — again as told by Massa — is that some of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected. In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public square by privatizing personal belief. The very effort to ‘safeguard’ the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . . contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”
Fifty years after Kennedy’s Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before. But I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try. The life of our country is no more “Catholic” or “Christian” than it was 100 years ago. In fact it’s arguably less so. And at least one of the reasons for it is this: Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don’t really believe. Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, “I doubt it.”
For my money, I’m closer to Dreher and Chaput on this than to Sullivan, though I certainly sympathize with Sullivan’s views. There’s two ways I approach this issue: First, I approach it as a traditional Christian who affirms the system of religion taught in our oldest creeds. As such, I believe that Christianity isn’t just, in Chaput’s phrase, a “private idiosyncracy.” I believe it offers us true revelation about the nature of life and creation in its wholeness. And so I do stumble over the idea of “separation of church and state” because I hear in those words the potential for the idea that my religious faith has no part to play in the public square of my country. I don’t think those words have to be interpreted that way, but I think there’s a growing number of people who would interpret them that way. But for me, I stand with Kuyper who said that there is not one square inch of creation of which Jesus Christ doesn’t say “That’s mine!” And the public square is part of that created space that he rightly claims as its creator.
That said, you also have to approach this from a pragmatic approach that looks to cultivate a healthy polis and to avoid the most extreme forms of Constantinianism. So I do have an interest in trying to cultivate a religiously-neutral public square where the affairs of the polis can be addressed fairly and justly by an exceedingly-pluralistic community. That said, I am increasingly leery of how we speak about that idea of a neutral public square and at times even question whether such a thing is possible. After all, a secular public square isn’t neutral. It’s secular. It favors people who are secular. And the only people who think secularism is some sort of neutral, default position which all humanity holds to at birth are, surprise, secularists.
All that being said, I think Sullivan is right – and right in an absolutely vital way – in insisting on a humble faith open to questions and willing to be corrected. The ruthless certainty of, to use Sullivan’s term, the “Christianists” is disturbing and, were it ever implemented en masse, dangerous. That said, I agree with Dreher and Chaput that there’s a danger of privatizing religious faith so that the only valid language in the public square is purely secular, materialist language. And from my reading of Berry, Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton I conclude that such a public square would be an exceedingly unhealthy one.
More on this to come, both from me and other writers I’ve been reading.