Does it help Rick Santorum to slam JFK on religion's role in politics?
Rick Santorum on Sunday attacked John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech affirming separation of church and state. With two-thirds of Americans saying religion is 'losing influence' in US life, he may be playing to those who worry about that.
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The changes over the past five decades include a confluence of social and political forces. America has remained deeply religious, compared with other industrialized democracies. Yet the perception that religion is losing influence has been matched by the rise of what political analysts David Domke and Kevin Coe have called a "God strategy" in US politics.Skip to next paragraph
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Republican politicians, and to a lesser extent Democratic ones as well, have become more vocal about their religious faith – and have enhanced their connection with many voters as a result. They may not quite be kneeling, Tim Tebow-style, before each speech. But Mr. Domke and Mr. Coe argue in their 2008 book that Kennedy's speech conveyed "a welcome message then" that would be "almost unimaginable today."
Polls show that Americans want their leaders to be people with strong religious faith, says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum.
At the same time, it's important not to overplay the cultural gap between today and 1960.
Kennedy didn't disavow all role for religion in public life, as Santorum's comments intimated. He erroneously accused Kennedy of saying "faith is not allowed in the public square."
Although Kennedy talked about "absolute" separation, his speech implied a specific definition of this in practice: No church would be dictating his decisions, and he would seek the best interest of a nation in which "no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace."
Kennedy added this: "nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election," and he ended the speech, "so help me God."
Today, as in the 1960s, many Americans share some of the concerns Kennedy spoke to. Mr. Smith cites a 2010 Pew survey finding that 52 percent of Americans, essentially the same share of Americans as in 1968 (in a Gallup poll), say that churches should stay out of politics, rather than push their views in the political arena.
Americans "want to see that kind of influence of religious values" on their leaders, Smith says. "At the same time there's a line at which they don't want to see too much mingling of religious influence in politics."
John Green, a political scientist who tracks the role of religion, says that in 1960, the religious divide in politics was among groups such as Catholics and Protestants. Today, the divide has become more about the preferred level of religiosity in a candidate, says Mr. Green, at the University of Akron in Ohio.
Santorum appeals to many voters who favor a strong level of religiosity. That's a sizable share of Republican voters in the primary races, but a smaller share of the swing voters who would become crucial to Republican hopes in the general election.
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