We are all familiar with former Sen. Rick Santorum's recent, ahem, eloquent remark about President John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the separation of church and state, delivered a half-century ago. Santorum said that reading JFK's speech "makes me throw up."
I could, but have too much decorum to, say the same thing about the Santorum candidacy.
Santorum is a pox on the Constitution and on all truly patriotic (as opposed to jingoistic) Americans. He avers study and education as if they were diseases, despite the fact that he has undergraduate, MBA and law degrees. (A bit of hypocrisy there, perhaps?) He calls President Barack Obama a "snob" for suggesting that all Americans should be able to spend at least one year in higher education, including community college or vocational training.
Santorum fails to do his homework and gets his facts wrong with astounding regularity. When he called Obama a snob, he asked the audience why the president hadn't suggested vocational training, as opposed to college studies. In fact, Obama included vocational training in the same speech in which he advocated higher education for all. On that point, Santorum and the president agree, which Santorum would have understood if he had done his homework.
Similarly, Santorum's law degree belies the fact he could crusade for so-called religious freedom when he has been trained to understand that no such freedom is at risk. He agrees with the Catholic bishops who claim their First Amendment rights are invaded by health-care reform. Part of that law requires them to offer insurance to Catholic hospital and school employees that covers the cost of contraception. But as Obama recently announced, church institutions are not required to pay for that coverage.
As a law student, Santorum must have read the free-exercise clause of the Constitution and, one would think, have gained at least a modicum of understanding of its meaning. The clause guarantees Americans the freedom to follow the religion of their choice without persecution.
The Supreme Court made clear -- in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic no less devout than Santorum -- that the Constitution does not, however, excuse religious institutions from obeying the law. Scalia wrote for the court in the 1990 ruling on Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith: "We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free-exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition."
For Santorum to claim otherwise is either the height of hypocrisy or ignorance, or both.
As wrong as he is about the Constitution, however, Santorum is just as wrong about the Kennedy speech. If he took the time to read it, he would see that JFK's commitment to absolute separation between church and state is what has made possible Santorum's run for national office. Kennedy's speech reinforced the point that the Constitution outlaws any religious test for public office. JFK's main point was that he, as a Catholic, had as much right to be in the public square as anyone else, be they Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant or (heaven forfend) even a nonbeliever.
The fact that Santorum and other zealots have turned that right on its head to claim that Christians are somehow persecuted by health reform or any other federal law is one of the quizzical anomalies of American politics. While trying to force people who don't share his skewed and controlling version of Christianity to obey the rules of his faith, Santorum and his ilk are claiming persecution in the process. American politics just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.
Santorum's losses in Michigan and Arizona take much of the luster off his presidential-nomination bid and brand him more as outlier than potential front-runner. He's still a dangerous force in politics, though, who has served to take us back, way back, rather than to move us forward.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email email@example.com.