Last week, Rick Santorum said John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to Baptist ministers justifying his candidacy for President as a Roman Catholic made him want to “throw up.”

Santorum’s candidacy would make the voters of California throw up, and were he somehow the GOP nominee for president, the electoral results for Republicans in California would be catastrophic, a loss of as many as seven to nine congressional seats and two thirds Democratic margins in both houses.  Fortunately, that is still pretty remote, because Santorum digs a deeper hole for himself every time he talks about religion.  This outburst was no exception.

Santorum said Kennedy believed, “People of faith have no role in the public square,” and urged voters to read the speech for themselves. So let’s do so.

John Kennedy was our first and so far only Catholic president.  In 1960, he confronted what was called the “religious issue,” would a Catholic put his religious beliefs before his public duties.  Thirty two years before, in 1928, that had been the key concern when Democratic Catholic New York governor Al Smith had run and had lost, in part, because of anti-Catholic feelings, especially among Southern Baptists.  Kennedy did not want this to happen to him, and so he went to Houston, Texas, and on September 12, 1960, he addressed a meeting of the Associated Ministers of Greater Houston.

The meeting opened with a prayer by the Rev. George Heck, which ended, “Let Thy grace rest upon our Nation and do not take our Gospel life from us, incline our ears to Thee and to Thy will and show us always the truth that makes and keeps men free, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray, amen.”

Sen. Kennedy then rose and began his address: “Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured.  So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.

“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, 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.”

Let’s stop right here, for Kennedy is stating the basic American relationship between religion and the state.  First, separation of church and state is not in the Constitution, it was part of a private letter of Thomas Jefferson in which he said people should not be taxed to support a particular religion.  But the phrase amplifies what is in the Constitution: that there is no religious test for public office (Article VI, Section 3), and that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The “establishment clause” means exactly that it says: that government cannot favor or “establish” a particular church in America.  The “free exercise” clause means that people are free to practice any religion, or not practice any religion.  None of this means, however, there is no role for religion in America; in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers acknowledged that Americans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  We can and do acknowledge that “in God we trust”, we just have guarantees that no one religion or one church is favored over another.

Kennedy, who certainly knew his history better than Santorum, was in no way arguing that, “people of faith have no role in the public square.”  He was articulating the historic understanding of church and state, and he went on to say: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

This is the classic understanding of the First Amendment; it certainly is not some invitation to drive religion out of our lives as somehow Santorum suggests.

Kennedy ended his speech by noting that, “If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole Nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.”

Kennedy’s 1960 election ended the “religious issue,” and despite his ignorance of the true meaning of Kennedy’s speech, Santorum himself can run for office as a Roman Catholic precisely because of it.

But religious tolerance cuts both ways today.  President Obama also might be well advised to re-read the Kennedy speech, especially where he says: “I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so.”

Obama’s clumsy attempt to impose mandatory contraception coverage on Catholic hospitals, and his fig leaf attempt now to force it through insurance companies, speaks directly to “religious liberty.”  Hopefully the Obama policy, forced upon him by his own very secular Democratic base, will be litigated and the whole nation may learn a little more about what the “free exercise of religion” is all about.

If Santorum or Obama, or certainly Mitt Romney who has special reason to be sensitive about a religious test for public office, wants to know what our religious freedoms are all about, they could do no better than to re-read the Kennedy speech.  On that evening more than half a century ago in Houston it was never better said.