I have become convinced that unless a certain historic awareness becomes a present preoccupation, then a once-great republic is destined for the worst of old ages—a certain dementia that combines lack of energy with violent irrationality.
I thought about this dynamic in the long months taken up with the primaries that precede the presidential election. It is always a time when ambitious men and women say things they mean only to gain advantage by. However, I am as much troubled that in saying these palpably dangerous things, the candidates (reasonably intelligent people, one presumes) obviously expect such things will appeal to significant numbers of their fellows as truth.
One candidate opined loudly that a separation of church and state is not to be found in the Constitution. It was demagoguery designed to appeal to a willful faction. Years ago there was what was titled the Know-Nothing Party: it is always dangerous to care so little for established models of governance.
Another candidate threatened to set the dogs to those judges who offend on matters of church and state. He would have judges brought before legislators to explain their actions, with the threat of removal if their views remained objectionable to the agenda of the house. Someone with so little respect for the separation of powers between branches of government would likely have even less for the separation of the powers of church and state!
Yet another candidate, with at least a memory of things past, spoke of a 1960 speech by a young presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy. That candidate's prospects seemed troubled because many people in what had once been a pervasively Protestant America suspected that a Catholic candidate would destroy the First Amendment.
To his audience at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that day in 1960 John Kennedy imagined an America of religious freedom. "I believe in an America," he said early on in the speech, "where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
It was a bravura performance and no doubt played a big role in Kennedy's eventual campaign victory. And whatever other faults may be perceived in his all-too-short presidency, his practical separation of church (his church included) and state was exemplary. It was so marked that in the earliest days of the 2012 presidential election (way back in 2011, actually) a statement from the Catholic bishops opined that they had made a great mistake in not holding Kennedy to the dictates of his church—a mistake they would not repeat. One has to wonder whether the candidate who recently invoked that speech was really more concerned with the present expectations than the past models when he said that the speech made him want to throw up.
I look at those two paragraphs from the 1960 speech and wonder how far we have come. It was a grand call to freedom of religion as attained through a First Amendment separation. But what do we have today?
"An America where the separation of church and state is absolute"? The principle has not yet been overthrown, but it has some mighty pious detractors. Some of the most religious mock the concept as erroneous and indeed unconstitutional. Maybe one day they will move beyond even worrying about correcting the Constitution? One hopes not, for freedom's sake.
"Where no Catholic prelate would tell the president . . . how to act"? One can only hope the recent statement from his church leaders today about Kennedy was bluster. We cannot afford such a dynamic. The dance of power in Iran between an ayatollah and their president has the world on edge. It should be a warning to us.
Where "no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote"? Sounds quaint, doesn't it? Voter guides and ministerial endorsement are routine and fly high and unharmed by tax-exempt requirements.
"Where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference"? How the world has changed! Any public funds! How would church schools survive today without government money? We are way beyond that sort of concern. The real battle now is to discern distinct religious identity in these increasingly secular institutions. Our educational practice has evolved, but not toward true faith integrity. Was it really only a bare decade ago that the faith-based initiative crossed the line in the sand and began funding church outreach? Of course there was a short-lived fiction that the money was only for church-run secular programs. What we are now waiting for is the imposition of civil nondiscrimination standards on the recipients of the aid money. Oh, wait, I guess we saw the tip of that iceberg with the health-care contraception mandate!
"Where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials"? It might be hard to divine this dynamic in Rome's private dealings behind diplomatic doors, but it was certainly on display during the recent kerfuffle about health-care provision of contraceptive measures. While we must beware of the state forcing a compromise on matters of conscience, the dance just as surely involves a church ready to project its view back through public policy. And it must also be recognized that many of the leading Protestant political factions today are just as unseemly and direct in efforts to impose their will on politicians and the public.
Kennedy laid out a clear vision. But it is one that we seem to have embraced in the negative. He mentioned his record a few words later, citing "my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools." Both points sound quaint today. "This is the kind of America I believe in," summed the candidate idealistically. What he was invoking was not just historic—it was a Protestant vision of religious freedom and of a civil state that upheld those values. How ironic that one of the most Protestant restatements of American religious liberty should be given by a Catholic candidate!
It remained to a candidate in this presidential season, and another Catholic, to make a troubling observation on the changed religious dynamic in the United States. At a 2008 address to students at Ave Maria University in Florida, Senator Rick Santorum said that "Protestantism in this country . . . is in shambles; it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it." I don't think he was being presumptuous—I think he has seen a certain undeniable reality. We don't want a return to the religious wars of Europe that followed the Reformation, but we surely need a return to the vigorous Protestant self-awareness that once cherished separation of church and state as the surest way to protect a new and vibrant republic.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."