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Santorum, Kennedy, Church and State

28 Mar
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Click to view Kennedy's speech or read the transcript

A few weeks ago Republican candidate Rick Santorum received a great deal of criticism for his criticism of Kennedy’s famous speech that details how he would separate his faith from his duty. While this accommodation sounds valiant – fitting perfectly with the American wariness at that time of Catholicism but presently with any religion, particularly Christianity – Santorum’s comments drove me to want to reexamine Kennedy’s speech in the light of the passage I was preaching when these events occurred. Matthew 11:1-15 was the text of my message a few weeks back, but not having had time to devote to such an examination until now, this blog post has been waiting for the occasion.

Let’s be honest about the speech. It was delivered by a master politician at a critical juncture in his campaign in which the country could have gone in either direction. His masterful handling of the issue effectively destroyed the fear that the pope would be in control of the White House. Further the manner in which he dealt with the issue never raised any doubt as to his faithfulness as a Catholic. While this speech did not ensure his election, it most certainly bolstered his chances while maintaining his Catholic credentials. Further, in Kennedy’s adept way, he recast the entire issue at hand making a far bolder statement of policy and principle than anyone had though was in question.

Having said that, let me delve into why Senator Santorum and other convictional Christians take issue with President Kennedy’s speech. This is best displayed by a comparison between a seemingly well understood American distinctive known as the separation of church and state and how this speech redefines it in such a way that no one could rightly speak of religious liberty without discussing Kennedy’s distinction. Perhaps redefinition is too strong of a statement, but it is a hard to miss how Kennedy elevates Jefferson’s statement about a wall of separation between church and state into an absolute barrier.

The desire of Roger Williams to convert the Native Americans to Christianity without the force of the state. This drove him to learn their language so that he could share Christ with them. If you click this link you will find a good biography I heard the author discuss in a recent podcast on "Thinking in Public".

As Baptists, for better of for worse, since Roger Williams, who first objected to the church being involved too greatly in the state or vice versa, we have most certainly promoted the concept of separation of church and state. Williams made clear, so far as I understand it, that since God was to judge men’s beliefs, no man should judge which Words of God must be believed in the state. To put it in a more Williams like way, “the magistrate may regulate and punish offenses against the second table, those commandments dealing with fellow-man, but not the first table, those dealing with duties to God.” (pg. 135 The Baptist Heritage H. Leon Macbeth). Williams desired to allow the Word of God illuminated by the Holy Spirit to convict men inwardly, separate from state influence as to how they must believe and thus behave. Behavior then could be regulated by the consensus of those governed from a common moral center. With this understood, can the type of separation Kennedy envisioned be the same as that which Williams and the Baptist espoused? Can that separation ever be so absolute as Kennedy envisioned? Perhaps an even better question would ask whether or not Kennedy’s system is the kind of system Jesus intended for a believer?

Here is where I think we find the link to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 to reassure the disciples of John as to his identity. Jesus affirms three particular methods which assure a person that he is a believer. The first of these affirms that assurance in Christ comes only when there is confidence in his work and Word. The one who takes offense at Jesus’ works will have no assurance that he is a believer. Since Jesus works of healing in 11:1-6 cannot be repeated we are left with the proclamation of his gospel.

Kennedy’s speech while ideal for his situation, took offense at the idea that the proclamation of the Word of God had any relevance to “the real issues which should decide this campaign. [issues that] are not religious issues.” Though he immediately states that “war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers,” Kennedy assumes that no religious answers can speak to such problems. Thus effectively one who has such confidence in Christ’s power to affect situations by his Word, and points to the spiritual need of people has his opinion separated from consideration by the state.

Matthew continues in verses 11:7-10 to record Jesus’ second method to assure a believer. Jesus makes clear that the reason the people listened to John the Baptist was not that he merely was an oddity to see or told the people the nice things they wanted to hear but that he prophetically prepared their hearts for action with gospel preaching. This involves conviction of sin, oppression, injustice, all based upon the revealed Word of God. Thus when the time is right and converted hearts meet with oppression or injustice they act to alleviate such pain and suffering in Jesus’ name.

Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation actually makes such a prophetic ministry impossible. He lauds an America where “no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or in the public acts of it officials.” The problem with President Kennedy’s words is not in his encouragement against the imposition of one man’s religious will. No one who would believe in separation of church and state would argue for such imposition. However, Kennedy problematically sees his ideal public only hearing what it desires to hear, with no opposing viewpoints. Such convictional opposition to any issue is separated from the public sphere. This is not religious tolerance, as Williams and the Founding Fathers would have argued to uphold but a separation from religious viewpoints.

Thus Kennedy’s ideal public does not enjoy true liberty, but bondage to the sinful proclivities of each man’s heart. Thus the public does not desire to tolerate any viewpoint but their own, the same tyranny that existed with the King of England and state controlled religion. On the other hand, if the people were permitted to hear every argument, even those that may be religious, then based upon the convictions drawn from such arguments  the consent of the governed would produce a liberating moral standard for the nation.

It is in the proclamation of the Christian gospel as it applies to individual issues of the day that believers can find assurance. Why? Not because standards are imposed as law for another, but because in proclaiming such a liberating gospel, Christ is proven to be the means by which each one realizes that salvation comes not from works or from the state, but from Christ alone.

This naturally leads to Kennedy’s next proposition. He states that he sees an America where “religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” Thus he concludes with the belief “in an America where religious intolerance will someday end… in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of holding that office.”

For Kennedy’s dream to be a reality, all religion must be separated from the public life and in order to be tolerated, consigned to the category of personal preference. This is an impossible dream so long as anyone would say there is only one way to be reconciled to God, especially through Jesus Christ. Let me explain. All it would take for Kennedy’s dream to be destroyed would be that one religion would claim that belief is not a matter of private preference but of singular importance. In the case of one way of salvation it becomes extremely important that everyone be right about their beliefs. This is why those religions that are so “intolerant” as to believe in only one way of salvation, must be publicly ignored or rejected. Thus, it is Kennedy here who imposes his religious proposition onto the country by calling for all religions to abandon their exclusive claims and admit that there are as many ways to God as there are private citizens.

So what did Jesus say? Matthew 11:11-15 makes the point that even though John was the greatest of the prophets, the least in the kingdom of Heaven was greater than him. Why? Those who would be the least in the kingdom were ones who had put their trust in a risen Savior for salvation. In other words though they would suffer, they would not suffer like John, without knowing the Messiah had truly come. In their suffering the greatest method of assurance available was the reality of a risen Messiah who proved there is but one way to be right with God! Surrender to his leadership and follow him. Since Christ alone was raised from the dead, his offer of salvation when compared against all other religions in the world is far greater because of the certainty that it offers.

I hope that this helps to clear up why any convictional Christian who believes Christ is the only way to be saved can be comfortable with the modern conception of this absolute separation between church and state that President Kennedy ushered into being.

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1 Comment

Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Ministry of the Word

 

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One response to “Santorum, Kennedy, Church and State

  1. bee corley

    April 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Jesus said to him “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one come to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 There is only one way, one truth, and one life that leads to eternal life with our Lord in Heaven.

     

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