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Legal Scholar: Santorum Is Right on Separation of Church, State Not Absolute

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By Napp Nazworth, Christian Post Reporter
February 29, 2012|9:10 am

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum was correct when he said "separation of church and state is not absolute," law professor John Witte told The Christian Post Tuesday.

"The First Amendment does not mean absolute separation between religion and politics. The First Amendment means that we protect religious freedom, and religious freedom can be both public and private in its expression," Witte explained.

Witte is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law, Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Professor, and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. He has written books and articles on the topic of religious liberty, including, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment (2011), which is now in its third edition.

In that book, Witte traces the origin of the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment – the Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") and the Free Exercise Clause ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."), and how those clauses have been understood throughout American history.

Santorum, this past weekend, referenced a 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy in which he said "the separation of church and state is absolute." In a Saturday campaign speech, Santorum, reading the speech, said it made him want to "throw up."

"I don't believe in America the separation of church and state is absolute," Santorum said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday. "The idea that the church can have no influence or involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country."

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Witte said it had been a long time since he read Kennedy's speech, so he could not say whether or not Santorum accurately characterized Kennedy's speech. Kennedy delivered the speech during a time, though, when the phrase "separation of church and state" was popular.

"Separation of church and state was very much a part of the elite nomenclature, both of public opinion and of judicial opinion in the 1960s and 1970s."

But, even then, separation of church and state was not understood to mean separation of religion and politics, Witte said.

"I can say that Santorum's argument that, even in the heyday of strict separation, we didn't have a hermetic and hermeneutical separation between religion and politics, I think is right."

In his book, Witte identified six different principles that are embodied in the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment – liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious pluralism, religious equality, separation of church and state, and disestablishment at least of a national religion.

By separation of church and state, the Founders meant that "religious communities and political communities have to have their own respective autonomy, the ability to do their own things without interference from the other," Witte said, but it did not mean that "the church did not have a public role in general to play." Indeed, according to Witte, churches played very important public roles in the 18th century by, for instance, providing education and other charitable goods and encouraging political participation. The state also supported religion through tax exemptions and subsidies as well as symbolic support.

"This is all consistent with the idea that church and state must be separate, but they must cooperate in the governance of the polity and govern it in a way that caters to the public good," Witte said.

David Walsh, editor of History News Network, argued in a blog post that Santorum misunderstood the context of what Kennedy was saying. Kennedy, a Catholic, was not suggesting that religious views were not welcome in political life, Walsh said, rather, he was seeking to reassure the public that, if elected president, his political decisions would not be under the control of the Pope.

Santorum said Tuesday that he regretted the strong language he used to describe his reaction to the speech.

"I wish I had that particular line back," Santorum said on Laura Ingraham's radio show.

SEE VIDEO OF RICK SANTORUM GIVING ONE HIS BEST SPEECHES

Contact: napp.nazworth@christianpost.com, @NappNazworth (Twitter)
 

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