Most Read: Politics

Read In

Now Viewing: People from around the country looking at Post Politics section

See what's being read across the country ›

Social Surface: Politics

Political Bookworm
Posted at 02:10 PM ET, 03/05/2012

Santorum and Madison on church and state


About this blog: James Madison was a Founding Father
of great complexity and many contradictions who had a profound influence on the ideas that created America. In his book, “James Madison and the Making of America,” released last month by St. Martin’s Press, Kevin R. C. Gutzman provides a multi-layered portrait of Madison, with particular emphais on his ideas about church and state. Here, Gutzman, a professor of history at Western Connecticut State University, looks at presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s recent coments on church and state in relation to what this Founding Father had to say about the issue.

-------------------------------------

Some controversies never die. Among them, seemingly, is the one over the proper relationship between government and religion — between church and state.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania hopes to become the second Roman Catholic president of the United States and, not unnaturally, he has taken the opportunity to consider the example of the first, John F. Kennedy.

Creating something of stir recently, Santorum said Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech endorsing an “absolute” separation between church and state made him want to “throw up.” Why?

When the question was put to him by George Stephanopoulos (son of a very prominent Orthodox priest), Santorum replied: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

One wishes that Stephanopoulos had asked Santorum how he knew that. Where does Santorum get his idea of “the objectives and vision of our country?” Certainly not from study of James Madison.

The chief craftsman of America’s tradition of church-state separation, Madison, disagreed with Santorum. He developed at great length over more than 50 years his belief in religious freedom. Never again in America should Virginia whip Baptists or Massachusetts hang Quakers. The church should form no part of the state.

With that in mind, Madison at the tender age of 25 coined the phrase “free exercise of religion” for the Virginia Declaration of Rights — America’s first such declaration. He pushed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to passage, officially separating church from state in the Old Dominion.

Madison also played the lead role in drafting the U.S. Constitution, whose Article VI bans religious tests for office-holding. He led the way in drafting the First Amendment, which paired “free exercise” with a ban on congressional legislation “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Madison’s point was not to exclude believers from politics. That would have been impossible in Madison’s day, when virtually every American believed in God, just as a huge majority of us do now.

Santorum says that, “Unfortunately on that day President Kennedy chose not to dispel fear. In fact, what he chose to do was expel faith.”

This is simply inaccurate. Kennedy invoked Madison in explaining that presidents should neither impose religion nor be accountable to religious figures — in Kennedy’s case, the pope.

For Madison, the separation of church and state was simply that: not that John Jay, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, or any of the other devout politicians of the Revolutionary era must abandon politics, but that they must not impose their religion on others through the instrumentality of the state.

Santorum’s confusion on this score came out in his recent statement that he looked forward to an opportunity as president to lecture Americans on the dangers of contraception. One simply cannot imagine James Madison taking what is so transparently a position dictated by Santorum’s religion, stripping it of its theological foundation, and hectoring his fellow citizens about it.

Santorum seems to think that the president is our official bishop, rabbi, or imam, and that his election would amount to a secular ordination.

“The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state,” Santorum said, “is not and never was the American model.” What does he mean by that?

Madison explained in his “Memorial and Remonstrance: Against Religious Assessments” (1785) that laws establishing state churches had harmed both government and religion. Profoundly revolutionary in his day, this idea has gained ground since. In our own time, the Roman Catholic Church has banned priests from political service, forcing some to quit Congress.

In retirement, deep consideration of his principle led Madison to conclude that neither Congress nor the U.S. military should have chaplains. He apparently decided that it had been an error for him as president to encourage Americans to pray for victory in the War of 1812, because such blandishments, “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious [sic] idea of a national religion.” The government, he thought, should neither tax people to pay a minister nor set out particular religious observance that Americans ought to follow.

Nothing that John Kennedy said in 1960 indicated that he must cease to be Catholic if he became president. It did indicate, however, that Kennedy had given the underpinnings of American religious freedom serious thought.

One hopes that Santorum will do the same, and soon.

-----------------------------------

Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston

By Kevin R. C. Gutzman  |  02:10 PM ET, 03/05/2012

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company