February 27th, 2012
04:38 PM ET

Letters to the President #1134: 'Faith and Faithlessness'

Reporter's Note: I write to the president every day. I must have faith he reads my letters, because heaven knows I’ve seen no evidence of that.

Dear Mr. President,

I am intrigued by the most recent dust up over “church and state” involving GOP contender Rick Santorum, because like a lot of Americans, I am often not entirely sure what a politician means when he or she addresses that phrase.

Case in point: Santorum mentioned that famous speech by Sen. John Kennedy in 1960 when he was seeking the presidency. Amid boiling questions over whether his Catholic faith would somehow give the pope power over the Oval Office, the senator form Massachusetts said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Such a statement would seem unequivocal, and certainly the former senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum, thought of it in such terms. As such, he found it disturbing, and he may not be alone. After all, while many Americans do not want presidents to wear their faith on their sleeves, that is different than wanting our leaders to be utterly divorced from religious faith.

It is a fine line, but President Kennedy, legions of other politicians, and you have all walked it; in one breath eschewing the idea that faith might play an improper role in the public arena, and yet in the next instant asking voters to give you credit for your personal beliefs and religious convictions.

It reminds me of a old joke. A small town’s troublemaker runs into a minister on the street, who starts lecturing him about his evil ways. The bad man nods and murmurs agreement over and over, until at last the preacher concludes. “Well then, you’ve seen the errors of your life?”
“Yes,” the man replies.
“And you’ll change?”
“Yes, I shall.”
“You’ll be a better man?”
“Certainly, I will.”
“And you’ll give up drinking, womanizing, and I’ll see you in church on Sunday?”
At which point the man says, “Hold on, Reverend. You just crossed the line from preaching into meddling.”

This is where you political types live, I suspect, when it comes to religion. When you say you believe in separation of church and state, you recognize that many Americans do too…but only to a point. You want voters (especially those who are religious) to think that your decisions are informed by an over-arching set of tenets derived from years of faithful consideration and prayer, and yet you want other voters (especially those who aren’t particularly religious) to also realize that you won’t let your faith stray into the “meddling” zone.

No wonder I get confused when you all talk about faith; Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.

Anyway, I hope your Monday is going well. What did you think of the Oscars? I saw more movies this year than I have in quite some time, so I took an above average interest in the affair. No big surprises as far as I could tell. You?


soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Joe Bachofen

    Separation of church and state simply means that the law should be the first and only consideration in the decisions of government officials. That means that religious faith does not absolve citizens of crimes committed for reasons of conscience nor does it permit government officials to ignore the law. If we break a law as a matter of conscience, that's fine, as long as we are prepared to suffer the consequences. If government officials choose to ignore the law as a manner of conscience, that's fine, as long they don't expect intelligent citizens to vote for them.

    Mr. Santorum does not deserve my vote; how about yours?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  2. Peter

    I'll use the president's words here: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all." Now what is objectionable or confusing about that?

    February 27, 2012 at 10:30 pm |