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Clerics take issue with Rick Santorum’s criticism of John Kennedy’s view on church-state divide

On Sept. 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, stood before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, and delivered a speech defending himself from skepticism over his Catholic faith.

With soaring rhetoric, Kennedy outlined a vision of America in which no church would impose its will on government, and no president would face a religious test for office. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.”

In October, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire and said this of Kennedy’s speech: “Earlier in my political career I had opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up.” Santorum’s rejection of the Kennedy vision has, in turn, spurred clerics to criticize the former senator’s views on religion in public life.

On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Santorum defended his remarks. “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum said. “The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country.”

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While Santorum, a Catholic, has used his religious views to appeal to religious conservatives, Santorum’s comments on Kennedy have raised the ire of religious leaders across the spectrum.

“One of the things that happened when President Kennedy spoke is that he raised the level of public debate,” said the Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological School. “I grieve that Mr. Santorum has lowered the level of public debate.”

Carter said Santorum’s comments show a misunderstanding of the principle of separation of church and state that Kennedy laid out. Carter said separation of church and state does not mean the public sphere has no place for people of faith, but that there is room for people of all faiths.

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“The nature of what Kennedy did is he showed that he can be a person of deep personal faith but he can be a political leader who can be trusted by all,” Carter said. “It seems as though Mr. Santorum is more interested in feeding the issues of distrust and fear, which really challenges his qualifications to be the president of all the people.”

The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an ecumenical body of 17 Protestant and Orthodox churches, said her organization participates broadly in public life, on political issues ranging from opposition to the death penalty to alleviating poverty. “My sense is that people of faith are tired of our beliefs being used as weapons during a political primary,” Everett said.

Everett said Santorum’s remarks “were hard words to hear.” “When I went back to read [Kennedy’s] speech again, I was struck by what a generous and hopeful vision of religious diversity that Kennedy spoke of 50 years ago,” Everett said.

Even those who agree with Santorum’s sentiments question his turn of phrase. H.L. Champion, president of Baptist.org, an online platform for Baptists to espouse their faith and practice, said he sympathizes with Santorum’s views though he personally supports former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Champion, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., said he believes the Constitution protects churches from governmental intrusion, but does not force churches to abstain from influencing government. “I respect [Santorum’s] opinion … that we have a government that’s gone rampant and overriding religious freedom and religious institutions’ freedom,” Champion said.

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But Champion said Santorum’s comment about throwing up was “superfluous.” He believes Santorum, as a Catholic, was trying to distance himself from Kennedy. “I think it was just dramatic, it was a sensational statement to distance himself from John F. Kennedy,” Champion said.

Not only Christian groups are responding. The Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit formed to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, sent out a press release labeling Santorum’s comments “deeply disturbing” and “a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment.”

Derrek Shulman, regional director for ADL in New England, said in an interview that the ADL was “taken aback” at Santorum’s interpretation of the Constitution and of Kennedy’s speech. “Kennedy was not trying to impose secular values on people of faith. He was trying to protect individual religious liberty including and especially the liberty of those in religious minorities,” Shulman said.


Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shirascshoenberg.