By now you’ve no doubt heard about Republican presidential contender Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum's avowal that JFK's 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association makes him want to "throw up."  I am a former resident of Pennsylvania and I have a particular hatred for the Frothy Mix.  When I was in high school, he was promoting legislation that would have drained money from public schools for private, home, and charter schooling, and he very prominently decried public schools as “unnatural” environments for kids - seriously, he was and is a fanatic.  I’m still mad that the best I could do in my very first election was vote him out and Bob Casey in, and Casey is not too far below him on my shit list.  (He was one of the three Democrats to vote against tabling the Blunt Amendment.) 

Anyway, I think it’s worth taking a look at the actual content of the speech.  Nowhere, as Santorum claimed, does President Kennedy claim “people of faith have no role in the public square.”  Kennedy’s speech is about how he, as a Catholic, will not impose Catholic values upon a pluralist nation, just as he would hope that people of other faiths would not impose their values upon him.  Skip ahead to about 1:20 for one of my favorite lines from this speech. (Emphasis mine)

… It is apparently necessary for me to state once again, not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic zealot would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote … and where no man is denied public office mainly because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

That’s the rub, right there.  We live in a country with people of many faiths, a country that began as a haven for people of many faiths who were persecuted elsewhere.  We have to find a way to get along here, and that means creating public policy that respects each citizen’s right to practice their own religion. Jon Stewart nailed it with “How do you hear ‘all faiths are welcome’ as ‘no faiths are welcome?’”

Rick Santorum seems to be a big fan of imposing his faith on others, so maybe what upset him is the line about how JFK believes in an America “where no religious body seeks to impose its will, directly or indirectly, upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”  Notice that phrasing - general populace. A religious body is welcome to impose its will upon its members, just not everyone.  That this idea would be repulsive to Santorum is both frightening and real.

Then Kennedy continues to say that he believes in an America where “religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”  Boy, that has to really churn up some agita for the ol’ Frothy Mix.  I mean, after all, what’s this preposterous notion that the Constitution protects all religious institutions equally within the scope of the law?  Oh, yeah, that whole Bill of Rights thing, whereby “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

Since Santorum’s moment of foaming at the mouth, he has since apologized… kind of.  He said that he wishes he “had that particular line back,” because he’s sorry that he mentioned throwing up in an interview.  He’s not sorry that he’s openly anti-secular.  He hasn’t reread the speech transcript, looked at the context, or skimmed his copy of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights - at best, I think he watched this Schoolhouse Rock video about the Preamble, which is why two days after his upchuck comment he was claiming that both men and women signed the Declaration of Independence.  He still believes in an America where, when one religious faction gains power, they have the right to impose their particular beliefs on everyone else.  That belief should be scary in someone running for dog catcher - but it should be terrifying in a legitimate contender for a major party’s presidential nomination.

It is incredibly tempting to bring up the past when discussing the current birth control debate.  Clever cartoonists have dominated the “what year is this?!” market by sending Congress back to the 1950s, the 1920s and even the nineteenth century.  While feminists across the country and beyond have successfully prevented provisions such as the Blunt Amendment from being passed, proponents of such legislation consistently insist that the issue at hand has nothing to do with reproductive rights.  It’s all about religious freedom.  Because, to them, family planning is anti-Christian and, therefore, apparently anti-Christ.

Personally, being the Bible nerd that I am, whenever I hear conservatives argue against contraception (as well as marriage equality, abortion and other social issues) I think beyond the nineteenth century and back to the times of Jesus himself.  That’s what they are saying, right?  Why shouldn’t Catholics use birth control? “Check the Bible.”  What is so bad about equality for the LGBTQ community? “It’s in the Bible!”  What about abortion? “BIBLE BIBLE BIBLE!”  (No one ever seems eager to offer exact chapter and verse.)  The problem with the Bible—beyond the fact that it’s utterly irrelevant for the lawmaking responsibilities of our Constitutionally-mandated secular state—is that it over and again contradicts itself.  I would feel much more comfortable with a conservative who answered “Why, because it’s consistent with my own personal theology and morals!” to the above questions.  One would still have to ask about how they drew those conclusions and what acts of prayer, experience and deep thinking brought them to that point, but once you leave the plane of “GOD MANDATES THIS” and enter into the realm of human interpretation things suddenly become a lot more pleasant and manageable.  Opinions, not facts.

To illustrate how my own personal theology plays into this debate I would like to share a passage of the Bible and my own interpretation of it.  (I’ll use The Message, for those playing along at home.)  In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus and his followers are being followed by the Pharisees on the Sabbath because the Pharisees are hoping to catch him working and thus breaking the Law.  While they are following him, Jesus comes upon a man with a crippled hand.  It is against the Law for him to heal this man, but Jesus turns to the Pharisees and asks them, “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?”  Then he heals the man’s hand and the Pharisees run out, all angry and determined to destroy him.

I personally feel that this story has fantastic parallels for what is going on in Congress and across the country right now.  We can call the conservatives the Pharisees because the similarities are stark—learned men tasked by their fellow citizens to uphold the laws of state—but also because really, who hasn’t been a Pharisee at one time or another?  Who hasn’t judged someone they didn’t know based on actions alone, without a care to the context?  I don’t see it as a grave insult to call someone a Pharisee; historically they were greatly educated and respected.  What is important here is that the conservatives, like the Pharisees, are failing to ask the crucial questions Jesus has laid before them: What kind of action suits my religion and my law best?  What action does the most good and helps the most people?  Those fighting for “religious freedom” in Congress are so caught up in doctrine that they have forgotten that it isn’t what those words say but what they mean.

Jon Stewart recently had a fascinating interview with Cathleen Kaveny about the Catholic Church and the current birth control debate.  In this interview she brought up the many good works Catholics are doing in America today: feeding and clothing the poor, providing disaster relief, even fighting against human trafficking.  I looked it up and it’s true, they are doing some amazing things all around the world.  Kaveny talked about how these things should be the ones we talk about when the Catholic Church is discussed, rather than the various scandals and debates.  I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out why that is.  The answer is simple, really: it’s all about priorities.  If the Catholic Church (and other denominations of Christianity) cared the most about doing the most good and helping the most people they would be lobbying for a very different set of legislation.  If they really don’t care to blur the line between church and state in issues such as abortion and marriage then why do they balk to do so when it comes to feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless?  “That’s not the government’s job,” some will say.  But if that isn’t the job of the government, then why is telling people who they can and cannot marry?  There is a certain lack of consistency that makes it difficult for me to believe that following those words of Jesus, interpreting the law rather than simply following it, is their true priority in politics and in life.  Until Christian conservatives can address these inconsistencies in their priorities and their voting records it will become increasingly difficult for the rest of society to take them seriously.