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Santorum on “Absolute Separation” of Church and State

February 26, 2012

“Santorum:  Separation of Church and State Not Absolute”

That’s the headline coming out of an interview between Presidential candidate Rick Santorum and George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week”.

(video of both today’s ABC “This Week” interview and NBC’s “Meet this Press” interview here.)

Santorum’s exact quote was:

“I don’t believe in America the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum told host George Stephanopoulos. “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. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says ‘free exercise of religion,’ that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith into the public square.”

(decently in-depth story quoted above can be found here.)

The Constitution guarantees every American what they deserve — the ability to exercise their religion freely. So Santorum is absolutely correct in his statement, and he extends his respect outside of his own religious persuasion to “people of faith and no faith”.

However, the media, seeking a big story, (and perhaps his opponents as well) will likely try to spin this statement into something dictatorial. Don’t participate. Save the thrill of feeling scared for the latest Wes Craven movie or even an old Alfred Hitchcock black and white flick. That way you can enjoy entertainment for entertainment’s sake without falling for some broadcaster’s sales pitch.

In Santorum’s words :

the First Amendment says ‘free exercise of religion,’ that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith into the public square.

Again, he’s correct. That’s what freedom of speech and religion are about. Freedom of religion means speaking your mind in a pluralistic society. It applies to politicians as well.

The Associated Press version of the story (link here) badly misquotes Santorum by leaving out the word “absolute”. The AP actually ran the story under the deceptive but more titillating headline “Santorum says he doesn’t believe in separation of church and state.” The Associated Press has a near monopoly on print news stories in this country, so they often unabashedly distort their coverage — sometimes out of bias and sometimes simply to drive sales.

Finally, as we all know, the term “Separation of Church and State” is a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson in a personal letter. The phrase does not have the force of law because it does not appear in the Constitution itself. Instead, the First Amendment bars the “Establishment” of religion using these words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I ask that you consider the difference between “establishment” of religion (prohibited) and “separation of church and state” next Christmas when we have our annual spate of lawsuits about whether decorated spruce trees on public property are “Christmas trees” or “holiday trees”. What foolishness! Christmas trees have never established any religion nor forced any citizen to worship or not worship in any way shape or form.

We can avoid the “establishment” of religion in America but we cannot, in any practical way, “separate” church and state. That is because we cannot “separate” our religious thoughts and opinions from our understanding of right and wrong and good and bad. These ideas are intertwined at their very roots. Absolute separation is not only undesireable as Santorum said, it is impossible.

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