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Santorum's bid restored faith in politics

Rick Santorum was a warrior returning home from battle.

In Washington, D.C., last week, 1,000 Catholics gathered for the eighth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which had everything to do with religious liberty this year. The former Pennsylvania senator, freshly retired from his upstart presidential nomination campaign, was in the audience, and was welcomed with a standing ovation.

The crowd's embrace of Santorum stood as a paradox, in a way, to electoral reality. Santorum did not win over members of his own faith, after all. In state after state, he won with evangelical voters instead. A number of years ago, in fact, he had been named by Time magazine as an influential "evangelical." What was that about? People have told me that it's because he comes off "judgmental." But what does that mean? As best as I can tell, it means he has clear moral standards, tries to live up to them and has the courage to actually talk about what he believes.

"That makes me throw up," is how history may record Santorum's commentary on John F. Kennedy's historic speech on faith and politics, in which the future president outlined his stance on the strict separation he would maintain between his religious beliefs and his public actions. But that irresistible sound bite doesn't quite do justice to what Santorum has had to say on the topic.

In his 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, Kennedy tried to ease worries about the fact that he, if elected, would be the first Catholic president. He wanted to make sure people didn't think he would be taking orders from the Vatican. But in the course of doing something politically prudent, he also helped usher in a new era, the one we're still living in: an America in which, as then-Senator Kennedy put it, "the separation of church and state" is all too often considered "absolute."

Santorum, like Kennedy, is keen on the principle enshrined in our Constitution that presidents should not impose their religious views on the nation. And, like Kennedy, he believes that a candidate's religious affiliation shouldn't be a disqualification for office. But the Kennedy speech presented a model for pushing religion to the margins of our public life, a fact that has impoverished a nation that once prized religion as a civic good.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia has said that Kennedy was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong." The 1960 speech, Chaput said, "began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person's private beliefs from his or her public duties."

The archbishop made these comments on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy speech, in 2010. Fast forward to today. Religion is in the news, as the current White House shows an unprecedented hostility to the free practice of religion in America. And, as it happens, Catholics are in the driver's seat, or at least providing political cover: The federal mandate requiring all employers to pay for health insurance plans that include contraceptives, sterilization and even abortion, with only the narrowest of exceptions, was presented to us by a Catholic: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and has been defended by former Scranton altar boy Joe Biden.

Which presents the central question: Are we a people who think that truly living as believers -- being fully integrated persons whose actions are in accord with their religious views -- is a plus for society? One archbishop declared at the D.C. prayer breakfast that "merely tolerating religion with hostility is not religious freedom."

Santorum and his primary campaign represented a renewal of the healthy integration of faith in our politics. He spoke as one who has confidence in a Constitution that protects the dignity of man. He spoke with the authentic populism of one who takes his duties as a public servant seriously.

At a time when the religion of secularism threatens to overcome our state, just as it has in many ways our culture, we're better for Santorum's run. We're more American for it -- if we, believers and nonbelievers alike, follow his lead in not only protecting but actually welcoming the flourishing of religion in America. Fifty years from now, Santorum's repudiation, in both word and political practice, of what was wrong with the Kennedy approach will be hailed as a game changer for the role of religion in American life -- or as a warning that we failed to heed.


Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online. She can be contacted at