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When Rick Santorum claimed that JFK’s 1960 ‘separation of church and state’ Houston campaign speech made him want to throw up, he was rightly criticized for it. Kathleen Townsend for the Washington Post said ‘Either Santorum doesn’t know his American history or he is purposefully rewriting it.’ Working in the wonderful New York State Archives in Albany this week I found a great deal of material on Catholic religious school aid controversies, which shed light on the history of US anti-Catholicism and ‘Wall of Separation between Church and State’ rhetoric. Since Santorum is a Catholic and so was JFK, along with fully a quarter of all Americans, examining such materials may help us to understand why Santorum made such remarks, to whom they might appeal,  and how to combat them most effectively.

The sometimes ugly anti-Catholicism that helped prompt JFK’s 1960 speech is noted by several writers and echoed at many points in American history. New York Governor Al Smith’s run for the Presidency in 1928 was dogged by similar prejudices. During the late-nineteenth century ‘Blaine Amendments’, provisions in state constitutions prohibiting aid to ‘sectarian’ Catholic schools, were passed and justified in the name of church-state separationism, but they allowed state funds to go to the public schools where Protestant hymns, texts and the King James Bible were mandated. The Protestant practices of nineteenth-century public schools were highly sectarian, discriminatory against Catholics, and are no longer permitted. A religiously-neutral and inclusive education system is in part what JFK referred to when he talked about the importance of ‘the separation of church and state’ and today, this is how public schools in America operate. The Protestantism of the public schools and anti-Catholic vitriol of some Know-Nothings are thankfully behind us.

That famous phrase: ‘a Wall of Separation between church and state’, generated by Roger Williams, resuscitated by Justice Black and regurgitated by Rick Santorum, has assumed considerable political importance in the US over the past hundred years but is poorly understood. On Wednesday the Guardian’s Andrew Brown suggested, rather unconvincingly, that the principle of church-state separation is ‘self-contradictory’.  The real problem is that much ‘Wall of Separation’ rhetoric implies there is a clear, impregnable line between church and state activity when in practice over the twentieth century the principle of church-state separation has become one of lively democratic contestation and a degree of flexibility, allowing Catholics and other religious organizations to enter the public sphere and participate on the same terms as any other group.

In 1949, as the New York Times archive notes, Cardinal Spellman publicly excoriated Eleanor Roosevelt as anti-Catholic for arguing against the inclusion of parochial schools in the federal education funding being proposed in Congress. He later said that the Roman Catholic Church ‘in no way [wishes to] undermine the traditional American principle of separation of Church and State’ and that ‘public funds were neither sought nor expected’, for school construction and teaching services at least. As my interviews with state legislators and Catholic school organizations in New York State make clear, the Catholic Church advocates on behalf of its members just like every other organization. This free and boisterous advocacy in the public sphere is just what is implied by a separation of church and state (although whether publicly-funded transportation or text books for children at religious schools are also permitted by the principle is more questionable…)

Santorum’s argument that to call for a separation of church and state is ‘to say that people of faith have no role in the public square’ is nonsense. But the source of such confusion can be understood at least in part by examining the historical context of anti-Catholicism and ‘Wall of Separation’ rhetoric. Since historically, separationist rhetoric was used to pass Blaine Amendments that forced poorer Catholic parents to send their children to Protestant (‘public’) schools, church-state separation may erroneously seem to exclude certain religious groups from the full benefits of citizenship. Moreover the ‘Wall of Separation’ is a simplistic, dichotomous metaphor whose associations with impregnability may convey to certain voters the impression that members of faith cannot participate at all in the political arena. Of course that is false, as Santorum’s very candidacy attests. We need a more complex understanding of church-state separation, which Santorum characterizes in simplistic and misleading way. The first step should be to drop the ‘Wall’ metaphor. It does more harm than good.

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