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.

The Key Distinction Between Moral And Legal

Something we need to clear up to kick this off is the distinction between moral and legal behavior.  I think this is especially important because if you look at elected officials right now (*coughcoughBluntdebaclecough*) they tend to be blurring the line there. 

Moral judgement is a subjective system of defining actions as “good” or “bad,” and is primarily influenced by social, religious, and cultural values.  For example, if a culture values its elders, that culture’s moral behavior approves listening to and obeying one’s elders and disapproves ignoring or disobeying them.  Morality varies widely between individuals, however, even those who share a background.

Legal judgement is (ideally, at least) an objective system of defining actions as permissible or punishable based on the interests of maintaining order within a society and protecting the rights of its citizens.

While legal and moral evaluations often reach the same conclusions, they are not always equivalent.  Some examples of where they do and do not overlap:

  • It is both illegal and immoral to murder in cold blood.
  • It is both legal and moral to give money to charitable causes.
  • It is illegal but morally neutral to jaywalk.
  • It is legal but may be considered by some immoral to view pornography that features consenting adults.

Before waxing poetic about how great morality is, let’s remember that human history is filled with wars over morality. In Europe during the Renaissance, Catholics and Protestants died in huge numbers duking it out over whose morality was “right,” and that’s just looking at two moralities with deep similarities. 

The problem isn’t morality itself, but moral absolutism - the attitude that”I’m right on everything, you’re wrong on everything, so therefore you are a bad and unworthy person.”  Even more so when that comes with the corollary that “and because you are a bad, unworthy person, I no longer owe you respect or decent treatment.”  that kind of thinking is what lead for actual persecuted people to look for homes in the American colonies, and, later, the US.  It’s tat kind of moral absolutism from which the writers of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights sought to protect the citizens of the US.  Over and over through our history, pitched moral battles have been answered by the US government in legal rather than moral terms. 

  • The old fight coming over from Europe about whose morality was more right was ended with the establishment clause, essentially saying “The government is not refereeing moralities, just protecting the right of each citizen to make his or her own moral decisions without interference.” 
  • The conversation about abolition was a similar battle of moralities, with one side cherry-picking pro-slavery bible quotes and the other doing the same with abolitionist quotes.  The triumph of abolition, however, wasn’t about either morality, but about the right of black Americans to autonomy trumping the “right” of white Americans to free labor. (Yes, I know, this is WAY oversimplified, but this is a bullet point and the point was too important to just skip.)
  • Legal distinction cut through morality again for Brown vs. BOE: the right of students to a public education trumps the “right” of parents to be 100% cool with who sits near their kids.

Are you seeing the pattern here?  The system of legal justice in the US does not make having moral prejudices illegal - only applying those prejudices to infringe upon the rights of other people.  It doesn’t step in to resolve every single moral disagreement its citizens have, but instead says that our society has many moralities and those living here have the right to choose any of them, as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same.  To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, my right to swing my bible ends at your personal life.

A little bit about us

GNRFO is the joint effort of multiple people, focusing on the intersection between politics and morality in America.  The three main posters are a public relations specialist, a writer, and a soon-to-be college student.  The three of us are Christians, but we are not evangelicals and we’re making the case for keeping religion well out of politics, hence the title.  We welcome input, submissions, and guest posts from all corners. So stay tuned, kiddos, because we have some great stuff in the pipeline.