When JFK made Santorum sick

The press was too slow to supply the larger context

It has been more than a week since Rick Santorum went on the Sunday talk circuit and made news by saying that John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech about his religion made him want to “throw up.” But the comment still reverberates on the campaign trail, including places like Ohio, where he and Mitt Romney have battled for the blue-collar vote, and where lots of people go to church and remember JFK.

Santorum got some bad headlines for the incident and it wasn’t long before he was backtracking on his comment. But it was his word choice, the vomit allusion, he regretted—not the substance of his remarks. And the press could have done a better job explaining that substance and its problems.

What apparently disgusted the senator was the notion that separation of church and state in America should be absolute, an assertion he attributed to Kennedy:

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? That makes me throw up.

Journalists are accustomed to having to work hard, sometimes, to translate Santorum (as my colleague Greg Marx explored recently), but there were clear problems with his JFK statements that should have taken reporters beyond headlines like “Santorum: JFK speech ‘makes me want to throw up,’” or merely asking, as George Stephanopoulos did, “You think you wanted to throw up?”

Most initial reports did not. While some stories the next day made reference to Kennedy’s speech—a few of them quoted it—in the context that it had made Santorum want to vomit, the stories did little more than that.

For example, many reports failed to mention that Santorum’s version of what Kennedy said was wrong.

Kennedy was, of course, a man of faith in the public square, a Catholic at a time when many protestants could not imagine one as president. That is why he made his speech. And he never said anything like what Santorum attributes to him, that only people of non-faith were welcome in the public square.

Santorum’s claims on Meet the Press were also open to scrutiny for how he characterized the views of the founding fathers:

The original line that you didn’t play that got—that President Kennedy said is, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” That is not the founders’ vision, that is not the America that, that made the greatest country in the history of the world.

But, as George Packer noted, a clear separation of church and state is a lot like what the nation’s founders had in mind:

Kennedy had nothing to say against believers entering public life, or believers bringing their religious conscience to bear on public policy. He spoke against any move to make religion official. The Constitution speaks against this, too—Article VI establishes an oath to the Constitution as the basis for public office, and explicitly prohibits a religious test, while the First Amendment forbids the official establishment of religion and protects its free practice.

In fact, Jefferson famously spoke of “a wall of separation between church and state.” And here’s James Madison, arguing that the division between religion and government is good for religion: “The devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

This sort of fact-checking and analysis did come in posts at outlets like Salon and Slate, but aside from an op-ed in The Washington Post, coverage by the mainstream media was one-dimensional—the vomit comment—and missed an opportunity to contextualize and explain the debate over church and state separation.

It came a few days later, but NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a good report that shows what the press could have done:

But Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary and who authored a political biography of Kennedy called The Making of a Catholic President, says he thinks that’s “a radical misunderstanding of what Kennedy was trying to convey in that speech.”

Casey says Kennedy would have been “booed off the stage” if he implied there was no place for religion in public life. He says Kennedy was explicit: While religious leaders should not tell politicians how to vote, they can and should instruct politicians on faith and morals.

The speech has to be read in context, Casey says. Kennedy was running in a political climate that was openly hostile to Catholics.

“And the primary issue is the accusation that Catholicism represents a church and a state, that inevitably to be Catholic means you want to have a Catholic-dominated state — and that Catholic leaders will coerce Catholic politicians to make that so,” Casey says. Fifty years later, the political climate is vastly different.
Santorum’s mischaracterizations aside, the press also missed a chance to differentiate between the substance of Kennedy’s speech and Santorum’s views. For example, in his speech, Kennedy called religion a “private affair” and stressed he would govern the country in the “national interest,” not that of the Vatican or the Catholic faith.

Santorum takes a very different view. Consider his comments to Stephanopoulos when asked how he would represent non-Christian Americans:

Come into the public square. I want, you know, there are people I disagree with. Come to my town hall meetings, as people have done, and disagree with me and let’s have a discussion. Let’s air your ideas, let’s bring them in, let’s explain why you believe what you believe and what you think is best for the country. People of faith, people of no faith, people of different faith, that’s what America is all about, it’s bringing that diversity into and challenge of the different ideas that motivate people in our country.

Santorum makes it clear he thinks faith should be subject to a very free and public discussion. He also seems to imply—optimistically and, given his conviction in his own faith, paradoxically—that such a discussion of ‘why you believe what you believe’ will end in a happy policy resolution.

More and more efforts to analyze Santorum’s comments vis a vis Kennedy’s speech have begun to trickle out—the Los Angeles Times had an editorial last Wednesday, for example.

But for the most part coverage has remained focused on Santorum’s somewhat bizarre language and its impact on the Catholic vote. Both are fine stories, but there was an opportunity here for a better one as well.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,