Religion v. the religious in public life

John F. Kennedy, who turned us all over to the papists.

Like Liberace’s dry cleaner, regular readers of Combat! blog may be at risk of Santorum fatigue. I feel your pain, but at the rate Santorum is producing stunning statements, he is either going to be out of the race soon or the most historically significant president of the modern era.  This weekend, the Penn State alum and holder of two postrgraduate degrees called President Obama “a snob” for saying that all Americans should be able to attend college. He also said that John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation between religion and politics made him want to throw up. Even if you can’t bear to hear any more about Santorum, the Times article is worth reading for the part where Mitt Romney bonds with fans at the Daytona 500 by mentioning that several of his friends own NASCAR teams.

Here’s Santorum on ABC’s This Week:

What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up. I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.

As any schoolchild will tell you, the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that no one who professes any sort of religious faith is allowed to participate in politics. That’s why the last seventeen presidents were atheists. Here Santorum makes use of some rhetorical sleight-of-hand: he conflates religion and religious people. Like the cynical argument that requiring health insurance companies to cover contraception violates religious freedom, Santorum is substituting for the separation of church and state the separation of belief and politics.

Back in high school, those of us who had no hope of learning what a boob felt like and therefore had nothing else to think about in English class learned some basic principles of debate. One of them was that you can’t argue values. Logic is an internally coherent system, and two people who start from agreed-upon values should therefore be able to convince each other, but belief is arbitrary. If we both agree that, say, individuals can exclusively possess delimited areas of land, we will get somewhere in our treaty negotiation, but if one of us thinks the very concept is absurd, there’s going to be a war. Shared values make the difference between politics—American politics, at least—and simple power struggle.

It’s important to note that in a liberal democracy, nobody cares where those values come from. Our beliefs aren’t always going to line up, but if I believe that stealing is wrong because it wrecks society and you believe it’s wrong because God said so, the difference for purpose of argumentation is nil. We’re not arguing about what our values are; we’re arguing about what follows from them. The sources of our beliefs lie in the other direction.

When Rick Santorum complains that the absolute separation of church and state prevents people of faith from participating in politics, he’s really complaining that politics does not take all of its values from faith. If it did, we wouldn’t have to convince each other of stuff—we would just believe stuff. Catholics* believe that God forbids people from using condoms. Non-Catholics harbor no such belief, so if you’re going to convince me that condoms should be illegal, you’re going to have to appeal to one of my actual values.

Santorum’s assertion that the separation of church and state makes him throw up is therefore a declaration that having to convince people makes him throw up. His values are dictated by his religious beliefs, so why don’t people submit to the authority of God and agree with him? Of course, for those of us who do not believe that the Humanae Vitae expresses the opinions of the all-powerful creator of the universe, this authority-of-God argument holds no water at all. Hence Santorum’s profound frustration.

Which brings us to the sixty-dollar question: why would such a man, who finds our system of politics literally disgusting, run for president? It is a corollary to the question people asked of Kennedy in 1960: what happens if someone whose beliefs are A) arbitrary to us and B) absolutely authoritative to him becomes the most powerful person in the world? For Kennedy, the answer was that he would respect the American people’s need to be convinced. For Santorum, the answer is that our disobedience makes him want to puke.


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  1. You make a valid point in that Rick Santorum is trying to impose his value system on non-christians even if the moral end-point doesn’t line up.

    I don’t think the distinction between logic and belief is a conflict of interest that always has to be brought to a head, and we should be avoiding it where possible. For instance, it wasn’t mandatory to have an order requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception. Also, those who initiated the order had to know our health insurance system clumps people together of many different belief systems without a legitimate degree of choice for the insuree. To me, it follows they should not have tried to force the issue. That said, I am an atheist myself and actually believe the more contraception people are using, the better. But I just don’t think the central planners need to be using such manipulative Systems tactics to limit real choices and control individuals. It will backfire in unpredictable ways.

    Things like contraceptives are not intended to be covered by insurance! they don’t belong in a risk pool, by definition almost their use is 100% predictable. The reason they are part of insurance is an attempt to use ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ in a twisted way to artificially increase their use.

  2. The lack of access to contraceptives has a far greater impact on women’s health than the lack of access to viagra would have on men’s health. Nevertheless, I believe Mr. Santorum has yet to propound that the need for the latter “enhancement’ is a manifestation of God’s will.

  3. “But I just don’t think the central planners need to be using such manipulative Systems tactics to limit real choices and control individuals. It will backfire in unpredictable ways.”

    I have a friend taking birth control to treat endometriosis. Should she not be covered by her health insurance because some Catholics think she should be able to reproduce at any time?

    I wonder what those Catholics would think about mandatory coverage for contraception if I also told them that she’s already had a hysterectomy?

  4. Your friend’s birth control costs are 100% predictable.

    I guess my opinion is that if we believe it is worthwhile to provide birth control at no cost, then it needs to be funded directly by tax and tracked financially. That goes for other services we put on nearly all insurance plans as well, such as yearly physical exams.

    Clumping birth control with insurance just hides what it’s being used for as well as the costs.

  5. “What it’s being used for” is avoiding unwanted pregnancy and childbirth and the attendant human physical and economic costs that come with them. What it’s being used for is women having control of their bodies and lives, including their recognition that they can’t afford to risk a pregnancy with every sex act.

    “What it is” is condoms, iud-type devices, birth control pills, and education about all those means, including “rhythm”. (Let’s have a moment of silence for that oldie) The same people who are consistently anti birth control are also anti sex education, anti “welfare” to feed and house children their parents can’t support, anti public education for children, anti public health care for women, anti social security and Medicare for the seniors unwanted children grow up to be, anti union, anti taxation, etc ad infinitum. Ironically, they tend to be vocally anti-government, unless it’s government involvement in people’s sex lives, their choice of spouse, and their desire to be free of laws based in other people’s religions.

  6. I was responding directly to Big Game, who pointed out that he knows someone who uses it to treat endometriosis, which is a use you failed to mention in your simplified view of the situation. There are myriad other health reasons to use it: hypogonadism, preventing osteoporosis induced from menopause, vaginal atrophy, so on.

    If you are diagnosed with any of these sorts of problems by a doctor then your health insurance should cover the cost of the contraceptive (at least at first). But being fertile is NOT a health problem.

    My understanding is that health insurance plans run by catholic organizations or whatever are not covering contraceptives for any reason, and I would have been behind a mandate that they cover it if there’s a diagnosed health problem. But mandating that a health insurance plan help pay for contraceptives no matter what is not the same thing.

    And I’ll reiterate again that I agree making it easier for women to prevent pregnancy is good for society, but health insurance isn’t where that needs to be handled.

  7. Just as another example to show that I’m not totally aloof from the reality of the situation. I have a good friend who had a clot in her iliac vein, and for the next few years a pregnancy would likely kill her. Her insurance paid for a nifty contraceptive implant, which cost several hundred dollars. This is insurance done right. And I couldn’t agree more that it would be a tragedy if her insurance refused to cover it on the basis of religious morality which she doesn’t share.

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