What Did Candidate JFK Mean By "Absolute" Separation of Church and State?

By Mike Dorf

When I first heard that Rick Santorum said he wanted to "throw up" when he read then-candidate JFK's famous religion speech, I had an admittedly churlish reaction of the sort I can only publish on a blog that bears my own name and in no way implicates anyone else with better judgment: Well, that makes sense, I thought.  If you're Rick Santorum, getting people to associate your name with vomit would actually be a step up from the Google bomb.

But I digress.  So anyway, what made Senator Santorum want to throw up?  It was Kennedy's endorsement of an "absolute" separation of church and state.  And I thought: Oh come on.  Kennedy can't have said he endorsed an absolute separation of church and state.  Nobody endorses an absolute anything.  But then I looked it up and sure enough, Santorum was right.  Here's what JFK said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."  And that's not all.  The speech goes on to say that no church or church school should be granted government funds (apparently not even if such funds are also granted to secular institutions for the same functions) and goes still further to imply that as President, Kennedy would be guided by his conscience, completely independently of what the Catholic Church teaches.  It's a very forceful speech, one worth reading--or better yet, listening to.

If one takes Kennedy at his word, it is hard not to agree with Santorum.  Of course the separation of church and state should not be absolute in the literal sense.  Certainly the Post Office can deliver mail to religious institutions; if a church, synagogue or mosque catches on fire, surely the government fire department can put it out; yet these activities effectively grant public funds to religion.

Likewise, it seems neither fair nor desirable to ask that people who connect their understanding of right moral conduct to some faith tradition wholly ignore that tradition in making decisions of public policy.  The anti-slavery movement and the civil rights movements were filled with people whose consciences were informed by religious teachings.  Of course it was possible to support the goals of those movements without religion.  Many people did and do.  But Santorum and others have a point when they note that for some people of faith it is artificial to demand that they try to separate their own motivating moral reasons entirely from their religious values.  It is fair to demand that there be secular justifications for the laws they support, but not necessarily fair to demand that their own reasons for supporting such laws be entirely separable from religious values.

Having said that, I should quickly add I do not read Kennedy to be making the very strong demand that Santorum attributes to him.  Here is what strikes me as Kennedy's crucial passage on this point:
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
I do not read Kennedy to be saying that his views ("these views") were formed without any regard to what he was taught as a Catholic but simply that when he deliberates about the public good as President, he will not consciously give any weight to the views of the Catholic Church simply in virtue of the fact that they are the views of the Catholic Church.  That principle -- a fairly modest version of what is sometimes called a requirement of "public reason" -- strikes me as quite defensible.  Indeed, if Santorum means to repudiate that, he should be questioned about his views vigorously.  Does Santorum think that the views of the Catholic Church (or for Romney, the Mormon Church, or for Obama, Protestantism) should carry weight as such in policy decisions?

In the end, it looks like Santorum is at best half-right in his critique of Kennedy's religion speech.  The version of separationism that Kennedy endorsed is unrealistically strict.  But Santorum is ultimately going after a straw man because Kennedy didn't really mean to endorse absolute separation.  For example, Kennedy's inaugural address repeatedly invoked God.  Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decided two important cases limiting organized public school prayer during the Kennedy Administration: Abington v. Schempp and Engel v. Vitale.  In neither case did the Administration file an amicus brief advocating any position, much less one of "absolute" separation.  And of course we know that in other respects, the Kennedy Administration did not pursue anything like absolute separation.  Chaplains continued to serve in the military; the Post Office delivered mail to churches; etc.

So, in answer to the question that titles this post, what did candidate JFK mean by "absolute" separation of church and state?  I think it is best understood in context to mean simply that government officials should not take orders from religious institutions -- which, after all, was the concern that had been raised about JFK in light of the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church (and anti-Catholic bias).  Senator Santorum is entitled to say that this makes him want to throw up, but in doing so, it strikes me that he exposes himself as:
1) Dishonest in reading JFK's speech out of context;
2) Dangerous in rejecting "absolute" separation of church and state in favor of no separation of church and state; or perhaps most charitably,
3) Engaging in the same sort of rhetorical excess that JFK was engaged in.