Does Religion belong in Politics?

by Patrick Travers.

A little more that half a century after John F. Kennedy’s famous speech that proclaimed an “absolute” separation between church and state, the debate about the role of faith in politics has resurfaced.

In a recent speech during the Republican primary campaign, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that watching JFK’s speech made him want to “throw up.” Santorum later explained his comments saying:

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

Kennedy gave his speech in Houston during his 1960 campaign for President because of concerns about his Catholic faith, assuring the public which included a group of Baptist ministers that he was not “the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Santorum also said he does not believe in an America where the separation of church and state is “absolute.”

“The idea that the church can have no influence or no 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 the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.”

This debate comes on the heals of President Obama’s renowned HHS mandate (Department of Health and Human Services), which requires all institutions, including religious-based organizations, to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion. Despite the emphatic rejection by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and many other religious and secular groups for overstepping the bounds of religious freedom, the Obama administration has said that it is not willing to address religious liberty concerns raised by its contraception mandate.

At a time when the economic crisis is still a very pressing matter for most Americans, Santorum highlights an issue that goes to the fundamental roots of society: religion is important for society. In an ever-growing secularist society, religion is forced outside the public sphere, relegated to the private life of church and home. But what kind of democracy and what kind of freedom do we claim when persons of faith are no longer allowed to have a voice? Do we not see the absurdity of people in politics somehow “leaving behind” their beliefs when they enter public life? Do we not see the absurdity of the “tolerant” secularism that does not tolerate the participation of Christianity in a society built upon Christianity? And are those that promote “modern” values like tolerance, rationalism and secular agnosticism not themselves forming their own quasi-religion?

The correct understanding of the “separation of church and state” springs from the principle of religious freedom. The State does not identify itself with any one religion, and the Church “is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system.” (Gaudium et spes, 76) However, Christians, like all citizens, should have an active role in society; a participation guided by a well-formed Christian conscience.

Kennedy’s speech can be found here:


  1. Alejo Molina

    Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”, states that: “56. The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions”. Therefore, considering true that nowadays Church and Government have distinctive roles and functions -which implies that one should not replace the other-; being faith fundamental for individuals, it should be considered fundamental in society.
    Any attempt to reduce religion to an inner feeling and confine it to an “individual sphere”, is an attempt to mutilate an essential dimension of the human being; one that constitutes his most inner structure and is the foundation for his micro-relationships (friends, family and small groups) but also macro-relationships (social, economic and politic ones), as well as the basis for the deployment of his full potential.
    This is why, in my opinion, banishing faith from the public (and, therefore, politic) dimension, has to be considered an outrage against our human dignity.

  2. Leonardo Plaza

    Any layman that makes a separation between his faith and his work or role in society (including Politics), is hardly fulfilling the mission that God has given to him in his vocation. The Vatican Council II, in Lumen Gentium states: “But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

    “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature.” (Lumen Gentium, 31). It is in this secular nature were God and the Gospel should be present by the testimony and work of the layman. Since the layman and the secular sphere can´t be separated, the absence of faith in politics, and in any other secular sphere, is a representation of another separation: faith and life. This is where the real problem, and solution, is found.

    In consideration to these lines: Catholics understand that the presence of God and the Gospels in the secular sphere must respect to the true autonomy of temporal affairs; however, that doesn´t mean absense of God or faith.


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