By George Packer for The New Yorker
President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religious freedom makes Rick Santorum “throw up.” “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum says. It’s a central part of his campaign strategy to distort such things as a Kennedy speech, or an Obama speech, to whip up outrage at the supposed war on religious people in America. Here’s what Kennedy said:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him… I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair.
Kennedy said much more, but this is the strongest passage of that famous campaign speech to a group of ministers in Houston, in which he argued that the election of a Catholic President who believed in the Constitution shouldn’t concern any American who believed in the Constitution—and, Santorum says, “That makes me throw up.” Santorum’s rhetorical eloquence is about equal to his analytical skill. Kennedy had nothing to say against believers entering public life, or believers bringing their religious conscience to bear on public policy. He spoke against any move to make religion official. The Constitution speaks against this, too—Article VI establishes an oath to the Constitution as the basis for public office, and explicitly prohibits a religious test, while the First Amendment forbids the official establishment of religion and protects its free practice. Santorum claims to be a constitutionalist, but that’s just rhetoric and opportunism. Santorum believes in a religious test—that may be all he believes in. (Mitt Romney believes in a religious test of a slimy, halfway, Romneyesque variety: in 2007, he reportedly dismissed the idea of appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet, saying, “Based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a Cabinet position would be justified.” So does Newt Gingrich, who has made atheist-baiting a central part of his political business.)
Kennedy seemed to have someone like Santorum in mind when he warned, “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been—and may someday be again—a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.” In 1960, it would have been hard to imagine how thoroughly religious sectarianism and intolerance would infect American politics, and especially one major party. The outcry over Obama’s policy on health insurance and contraception has almost nothing to do with that part of the First Amendment about the right to free religious practice, which is under no threat in this country. It is all about a modern conservative Kulturkampf that will not accept the other part of the religion clause, which prohibits any official religion.
Santorum, like most conservatives these days, says he is a constitutionalist. Jefferson wrote, and Madison worked to pass, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which held that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Jefferson included an even stronger phrase that was eventually struck out by amendment: “the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.” Presumably, all of this originalist nonsense makes Rick Santorum heave, gag, vomit, and puke.
What makes me throw up is the story of Hamza Kashgari. It’s a shame that every American doesn’t know his name. He’s a young, slender, philosophical-minded columnist and blogger from Saudi Arabia who, earlier this month, dared to tweet phrases of an imagined conversation with the Prophet Mohammad: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you…I loved the rebel in you…I will not pray for you.” Within twenty-four hours, more than thirty thousand furious replies had been posted on Twitter. Within a few days, more than twenty thousand people had signed on to a Facebook page called “Saudi People Want Punishment for Hamza Kashgari.” (So much for Arab liberation by social media.) One commenter wrote, “The only choice is for Kashgari to be killed and crucified in order to be a lesson to other secularists.”
Kashgari backed down, apologized profusely, and continued to be attacked. He went into hiding. Clerics and government officials threatened him with execution for blasphemy. He fled to Malaysia, hoping to continue to fly to New Zealand, where he would ask for asylum. But Malaysian officials, behaving against law and decency, had him detained at the airport and sent back to Saudi Arabia, where he was promptly arrested. Since mid-February there’s been no word of Kashgari. The Saudis have said they will put him on trial. What a pity there’s no First Amendment to protect him.
If only he had more powerful friends—if only Christopher Hitchens were still alive—Hamza Kashgari would be called the Saudi Rushdie. There would be a worldwide campaign to pressure the Saudis into releasing him. The United States would offer him asylum and quietly push our friends the Saudis into letting him go. But we’ve come to expect these things from our friends the Saudis.
We’ve come to expect these things from the Muslim world. We expect Afghans to riot for days and kill Americans and each other because a few NATO soldiers were stupid enough to burn copies of the Koran along with other objects discarded from a prison outside Kabul. Yes, those soldiers were colossally, destructively insensitive. Yes, we should know by now. Yes, the reaction has a lot to do with ten years of war and occupation and civilian deaths and marines urinating on Taliban corpses. Still, can we have a little outrage at the outrage? Can we reaffirm that human lives are more sacred than books? Can we point out that every time something like this happens, there’s a manufactured and whipped-up quality to much of the hysteria, which has its own cold political calculation (not unlike the jihad against secularists by Sean Hannity and other Salafist mouthpieces)?
Saudi Arabia needs an absolute separation of religion and state so that Hamza Kashgari can say things that other people don’t like without having to flee for his life. Afghanistan needs it, too, and so does Pakistan, so that mob violence and political assassination can’t enjoy the encouragement of religious authorities and the tolerance or acquiescence of government officials. And America needs it so that our Presidents’ religious views remain their own private affairs, and Rick Santorum and his party can’t impose dominion of one narrow, sectarian, Bible-based idea of the public good over a vast, pluralist, heterodox, freedom-loving democracy.