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.