Vriezen: Government, religion should remain separate

Claire Vriezen

If there is one person who absolutely terrifies me in the current competition for the GOP nomination, it’s Rick Santorum.

Not only are his political views contrary to nearly every personal value I hold, but also more than any other GOP candidate, Santorum seems set on making America as close to a theocracy as he can manage.

On Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed Santorum and during the conversation, he claimed, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” Santorum went on to comment, “The First Amendment means the free exercise of religion, and that means bringing people and their faith into the public square.” He was speaking about his reaction to a speech given by John F. Kennedy leading up to the 1960 election where JFK dealt with the role of his religion and its influence on his politics.

Now, Kennedy was the first, and thus far, only Catholic president to serve in office. He faced a great deal of opposition and anti-Catholic sentiment from those who thought he would become a puppet of the Roman Catholic Church or that his beliefs would influence his policy decisions.

Kennedy had to assure the public, and especially congregations of concerned Protestants, that his Catholicism would not affect his ability as president.

Today, we are seeing the exact opposite sentiment from presidential candidates. Any president who does not claim to be a God-fearing American and who won’t bring some sort of biblical perspective to the office of the president is looked upon negatively. President Barack Obama has been criticized endlessly for being overly secular in his views, rather than infusing the presidency with more conservative Christian values.

JFK said it well, noting, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” He went on to say that “whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling and 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.”

There is no denying that religion and faith play an important role of the lives of many Americans. Additionally, nothing should serve to hinder individuals from holding their personal beliefs or having the freedom of religion that allows them to practice such ideologies. Santorum is correct in saying that the First Amendment guarantees Americans the free exercise of religion and certainly allows them to bring their faith into the public square. But when the specifics of faith start to inform and direct policymaking decisions, we encounter problems.

Santorum stated, “Religion is to be freed from the dictates of government. But … the government is not to be free of the influence of faith and people of faith.” When beliefs and faith begin to influence government, when the church becomes entangled with the actions of the state and the nation, we start toward a theocracy.

The United States is not a homogenous Christian nation — nor were we intended to be one. The only mention of religion in the Constitution comes from Article Six, prohibiting a religious test as qualification for any public office and the protection given by the First Amendment. In more recent years, there have been numerous court rulings reinforcing the idea that religious ideas should not be a part of governmental policy.

For the president in particular, I expect a commander in chief who will make decisions with regards to national interest and consider their private religion to be just that — private. I don’t expect any president to be silent about their beliefs, but when their Christianity informs their actions more than their secular role in office, we begin down a dangerous path of religious favoritism and foisting theology upon those that don’t share the same views.