As the recent flap by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum shows, the mix of politics and religion is not a marriage made in heaven.
Indeed, Thomas Jefferson said long ago that a “wall” needed to be built to separate church and state. John F. Kennedy reaffirmed it, and the courts have long upheld it.
But in the heat of a tight Republican contest for the presidential nomination, a more than 200-year-old constitutional value has become campaign fodder.
As 10 states prepare to hold Super Tuesday presidential primaries this week, it’s also become just one act in a larger, but familiar, political drama.
Even as poll after poll shows that jobs and the economy are the public’s primary concerns, long-divisive social issues involving matters of personal faith and beliefs have become an increasing part of the effort to win the White House, as well as dominance on Capitol Hill.
“The impact of religion on politics never really goes away,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“It’s part of a broader pattern in American presidential politics that in order to win a primary, candidates frequently may have to run toward the party’s base.”
That’s where Santorum was heading last weekend when he said that, upon reading Kennedy’s 1960 speech in which the late president said the church-state divide was absolute, he “almost threw up.”
A week earlier, Santorum told an audience in Ohio that President Obama, who’s explained his Christian faith on several occasions, practiced “some phony theology … not a theology based on the Bible.”
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, two of Santorum’s Republican competitors, also have accused the president of waging a war on religion.
But on matters of personal faith and politics, many worry that a Republican revival of the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s is a troublesome path to political salvation this year.