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Santorum Picks the Wrong Founding Father to Make a Point

 |  NCR Today

This year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates are having a difficult time with colonial history.

First, Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) places Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire. And now Rick Santorum (R-PA) has Thomas Jefferson “spinning in his grave” over John F. Kennedy’s famous September 1960 address on church and state. Santorum takes particular issue with Kennedy’s assertion that church-state separation should be “absolute.”

Now, in fact, Kennedy’s statement was provocative and, to some ears, lacking in nuance. Maybe he was even wrong. It is a complicated topic, one not suited to the bumper sticker politics. (That said, it seems to me that Kennedy deserves a bit of a break, given the orchestrated and well-funded anti-Catholicism he faced as he waged a contentious campaign for president. For more on the bigoted effort Kennedy was up against, see Shaun Casey’s The Making of a Catholic President.)

But to assert that Thomas Jefferson, of all the Founders, would be especially upset by Kennedy’s interpretation of the First Amendment is simply bad history -- right up there with placing Concord where Cambridge belongs. It was Jefferson, after all, who is credited with coining the “wall of separation” metaphor that so upsets the religious right.

But more significantly, Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which, among other things, states “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…”

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The plain reading of this is that citizens should not, ever, face a requirement to support any religion with their tax dollars. That’s about as “absolute” a ban as you’re going to find.

But it is a complex issue, one on which the Founders themselves were not in full accord. Take, for example, John Adams. He had far fewer qualms about state support for religion than Jefferson.

Maybe Adams is spinning in his grave, which can be found in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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