Rick Santorum’s statements over the weekend demonstrate once again why his tone and temperament make him such a poor expositor of social conservatism. 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). Archbishop Charles Chaput made just such a case a couple of years ago.  From that speech (also delivered in Houston):

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.”

Read the whole thing. You may disagree with it, of course — I do not disagree with it — but it is a thoughtful argument that invites engagement.

Here’s Santorum’s take on the JFK speech, from ABC yesterday. Excerpt:

“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?” Santorum said.

“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,” he said.

 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.
Similarly, Santorum’s inability to resist lobbing a crude culture-war grenade screwed up a perfectly legitimate and necessary critique of the idea that all Americans should go to college. Here’s what he said:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lit into President Obama at a Americans for Prosperity Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan over his advocacy for higher learning. “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum sniped. “What a snob!”

The crowd responded favorably to the former Pennsylvania Senator’s remarks, applauding and cheering to his putdown of the president.

“Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands!” Santorum added. “There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

What a snob! Good grief. Santorum also said that liberal professors want to take religion away from their students. That may or may not be the case, but as Charles Murray points out in “Coming Apart” (and as has been documented often in social science studies), college-educated people are more likely to be religious than working-class folks. If your child goes to college, he or she has a greater chance of holding on to religious belief than if he or she does not. That doesn’t fit Santorum’s preferred populist narrative, but it happens to be true.