Via Huffington Post, Rick Santorum has written an essay detailing his interpretation of the First Amendment, in which he further explains his problem with JFK’s 1960 speech in which he said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Santorum’s objection:

While the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, the concept of protecting religion from the government does.

The first part of the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state church, such as existed in England and in some of the states in 1791, and from discriminating for or against particular faiths. The founders were determined to ensure that the new national government had no jurisdiction over matters of religion, in large part to insure that each American would be free to pursue the religion of their choice without state interference. Far from reflecting hostility toward religion, our founders, rooted in their own faith convictions, knew that faith was not just an essential element, but the essence of civilization and the inspiration of culture.

Santorum says that “Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to protect the government from religion.”

For background, here’s the First Amendment in its entirety:

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.

At present, we are concerned with the religion bit. “respecting an establishment of religion”. According to no less an authority than something quoted on Wikipedia this:  “‘prohibits the federal and state governments from establishing an official religion, or from favoring or disfavoring one view of religion over another.'”

Whoa! “Favoring or disfavoring one view over another” is a big step from just not establishing an official religion. And you can’t tell me that Christianity doesn’t get preferential treatment over Zoroastrianism in this country. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a Zoroastrian congressman, and yet there are apparently 11,000 practicing Zoroastrians in the United States. I wonder if they feel Congress grants them equal favor?

Then we come to the bit that says Congress shall not prohibit “the free exercise thereof”. Okay, then. I guess if somebody wants to form an Esoteric Order of Dagon and sacrifice people to the Deep Ones in exchange for jewelry, the Congress is powerless.

Obviously, this isn’t the case. Congress can prohibit the free exercise of religions if they determine they’re a threat to the population at large. And that could really be anything, especially since most religions seem to hold that all the other religions are a threat.

So, Santorum opposes abortion and contraception, apparently because his religious beliefs tell him to. He doesn’t want the government to fund these things. He wants Roe v. Wade overturned, because his religion tells him so. Other people feel just the opposite way on these issues. But Santorum’s religion tells him these people are wrong.

Let’s get something clear: no amount of parsing or interpreting the First Amendment will ever solve this fundamental disagreement. If there were an amendment that said:

The interpretation of meteorological conditions being necessary to the enjoyment of a walk in the park, the right of the people to disagree about the weather shall not be infringed

…it would not be of any help to us if I say it is a going to rain and you say it is going to be sunny. All it says is that we’re allowed to disagree. But eventually, we’re going to have to answer the question anyway.

Santorum’s “vibrant marketplace of religions”(?) has the same problem. Yes, we’re all allowed to have different religion, and the government isn’t allowed to ban them (except under extreme circumstances) but we still have the massive problem of determining which policies are good and which aren’t. Suppose some religion advocated something stupid, such as selling the strategic oil reserves to build a massive golden calf. At some point, the government have to say: “Your religion’s ideas are lousy. We will not listen to you.”

Santorum seems to be just sort of rambling off on a tangent in this essay, trying to avoid getting into a discussion over his actual beliefs.

P.S. Once again, I’m not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar. If anyone can explain the flaws in my reasoning, I’d love to hear them.

In Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Devil at one point says:

“When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? […] I am merely an honest American like yourself — and of the best descent — for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”

It’s a very interesting story, for it is very patriotic–jingoistic, even–but it doesn’t deny the unpleasant parts of American history, either.

I was reminded of this on hearing the recent controversy over Rick Santorum’s comment that Satan “has his sights on… a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age. [sic] There is no one else to go after other than the United States“.

First of all, as I said before, I’m not a religious person. And also, I have no intention of voting for Rick Santorum. I do not plan to vote for any Republican candidate, and even if I did, Santorum would be my third choice out of the current field of four. So, I am not defending him here.

However, it doesn’t quite make sense to me why this is such a big deal. I mean, it is a (in my opinion, regrettable) fact that this country is not going to elect a President who does not publicly profess to be a Christian anytime soon. We have had Presidents who were not very religious in the past, of course, but nobody knew it then, because they kept it to themselves. Personally, I think this is a sub-optimal state of affairs, but there’s no point in denying it.

So, given that, and given that the Bible talks about this “Satan” figure rather a lot, why should anybody be surprised to hear Santorum talking about him? I mean, if you believe in the Bible, as Christians are supposed to do, it seems like you’ll probably end up believing in Satan, too. Now, I know some Christians regard him as an actual guy with horns who is out there somewhere, and some think of him more as a symbolic character representing “Evil”. It seems to me that Santorum’s comments could be read either way, as well. Why is everyone so surprised? Did people actually not realize what Santorum believes before now?

So, with that said, I personally don’t care for what he says in this speech at all, and it has very little to do with the Satan bit, and almost everything to do with deeper, philosophical issues. Again, it’s interesting to contrast the ideas in The Devil and Daniel Webster with Santorum’s remarks. Here’s part of Daniel Webster’s big speech from Benét’s  story:

[Webster] talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days… He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.


[Satan] didn’t have much success in the early days. Our foundation was very strong, in fact, is very strong. But over time, that great, acidic quality of time corrodes even the strongest foundations. And Satan has done so by attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has [sic] so deeply rooted in the American tradition.

Like I said, both the story and Santorum’s speech are basically advancing nationalistic viewpoints, and yet Benét’s story has a much more optimistic–dare I say it, “progressive”–theme to it, whereas Santorum’s is a dark vision of decadence. I just think that’s kind of interesting. Of course, Benét wrote that in 1937–maybe he would be firmly in the Santorum camp if he were around today. Who knows?

Nationalist conservatives nowadays are very reluctant to entertain the notion of wrongdoing in the early days of the country. It’s curious–I think their narrative requires that everything be wonderful until the damned liberals showed up.

Ta-Nehisi Coates used to occasionally do posts titled “Talk To Me Like I’m Stupid” when he wanted to know about some subject. I am going to borrow his line to put some questions to you readers on the issue of Catholics and their opposition to contraception, which has been in the news lately.

I am not a religious person, and never have been. Most of what I know about religion is just the commonplace knowledge one can’t help picking up in our society. But I don’t know much detail, or history, of religious teachings. So, I don’t actually understand why so many Catholics, especially their leaders, are against contraception. I consulted my favorite source, Wikipedia, on the topic, and it reported that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is where it’s all codified.

Unfortunately, having read that article, it’s still not clear to me who originally wrote this Catechism and when. Apparently, it rests on the authority of the Pope–which surprised me, because I was expecting that something from the Bible itself would be the ultimate grounds for this. I was surprised, in fact, by how little the actual Bible got cited in all this.

Now, on to the second issue I don’t understand. If I recall correctly, this whole thing started because religious institutions don’t want to have to pay for contraceptives for their employees. Now, what I’ve never seen actually explained is: might it be the case  that some of  these employees are not followers of the same religion as their employer? If  so, then the question becomes: Is there a “nor tolerate those who do” clause anywhere in the Catholic teachings?

That’s important, because if it turns out there is, it could lead to some serious problems. But quite honestly, I realize that the answers to these questions are probably quite obvious, and that I am displaying an embarrassing ignorance of the subject.