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In September 1960, John F. Kennedy, in the homestretch of his race against Richard Nixon, addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy, only the second Catholic to run for president, told his audience of Baptist clergymen: “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.”

This spring, Rick Santorum, another Catholic presidential candidate, took direct aim at Kennedy’s speech. “That makes me throw up and it should make every American” throw up, too. Why such a visceral reaction? “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum explained. “The First Amendment [speaks of] the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.”

Kennedy was delivering a carefully prepared address; Santorum was speaking, as is his wont, off the cuff. But in their different ways, they joined a debate, going back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, about the ideal mixture of religion and politics. America adopted the unique premise during the founding era that the federal government wouldn’t interfere with religious matters. But in American politics, religion has always mattered.

The First Amendment, ratified in December 1791, begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This was a revolutionary statement about the freedom of religious institutions and individual practice. Earlier thinkers, such as the English philosopher John Locke, had praised religious toleration. But toleration implies a favor granted by those who tolerate—the government, or the majority. The language of “free exercise” shifted the grounds of religious liberty to rights. As our first president, George Washington went out of his way to assure members of even the tiniest sects, such as Jews and Swedenborgians, that they could worship as they liked in America, because their rights as men required it. It was not “by the indulgence of one class of people,” Washington told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., in 1790, “that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights…. All possess alike liberty of conscience.”

At the end of his presidency, Washington also went out of his way to assert that religion still had an important role in politics. In his Farewell Address, published in 1796, he identified “religion and morality” as “pillars” and “props of the duties of men and citizens.” He gave an example: If no “sense of religious obligation” underlay the oaths sworn by witnesses in court, property, reputation and life itself would all be endangered. “Who that is a sincere friend to [popular government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation?”

The intellectual context of the Farewell Address was the French Revolution and its aftershocks in the United States. Americans hailed the fall of the Bastille in 1789, but as the years passed France’s revolution became increasingly bloody, tyrannical—and anticlerical. Catholic priests and nuns were among its many victims; Notre Dame Cathedral was briefly converted into a Temple of Reason. Anti-religious rhetoric found its way back to America via the writings of Thomas Paine. Washington was trying to inoculate Americans against it.

He was also trying to wrong-foot his political foes. The two parties that sprang up during his administration were the Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the Federalists of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans were both Francophiles and critics of Washington’s policies—even though Jefferson had served for four years as his first secretary of state. Washington, on his way out the door, was simultaneously warning Republicans against irreligion, and tarring them with it.

He may also have intended to twit one Republican in particular. Washington admitted in passing that “minds of peculiar structure” might be able to reason morally thanks to “refined education” alone, though the morals of the country as a whole would have to rest on “religious principle.” Who in 1790s America had a peculiar, well-educated mind, with no orthodox religious beliefs? Who but Jefferson? Washington may have been sending a signal of disapproval, at dog-whistle frequencies, to his disaffected former colleague.

Jefferson stated his case after Republicans swept the 1800 elections, winning the White House and Congress. Baptists in Danbury, Conn., wrote President Jefferson an admiring letter, hoping that his “genial” influence might undermine “hierarchy and tyranny” worldwide, and especially in their home state. Even though the First Amendment had forbidden Congress to establish a national religion, the states were left free to make their own arrangements, and Connecticut had an established Congregational Church. Baptists found life under it “degrading.”

Jefferson answered the Danbury Baptists on New Year’s Day 1802 with a statement of faith—in the First Amendment. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson’s statement was multipurpose. His Federalist enemies had been calling him a radical for years; what better to way to show that he wasn’t than by wrapping himself in the Constitution? But in the phrase “wall of separation,” he was also writing his own gloss on it—and such was his gift for the pithy phrase that many hazily assume the words “wall of separation” are found in the Bill of Rights itself.

Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists had its own immediate political context. Almost to a man, New England’s Congregationalist clergy were Federalists, and New England Federalists detested Thomas Jefferson. “Do you believe,” asked the Hartford Courant in a typical blast, that “an atheist is qualified to make your laws?” Jefferson disliked Federalist preachers as much as they disliked him, calling them “the genus irritabile vatum” (the irritable tribe of priests). Jefferson wanted cover from Federalist/Congregationalist attacks; his doctrine of separation would supply that. But since the enemies of our enemies are our friends, he also welcomed the support of New England Baptists—and the Danbury congregation told him that “America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of state.” When it came to vote-getting, Jefferson’s wall of separation had holes in it.

Washington and Jefferson, amateur architects both, reached for two very different architectural metaphors to describe their theories of the relation between religion and politics—Washington speaking of pillars and props, Jefferson of a dividing wall. Their practice, calling on religious arguments or supporters as needed, was rather similar.

Later politicians followed their practice, even as they embraced one theory or the other. JFK in 1960 wanted to disarm the prejudice that in 1928 had helped sink the first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith: Reinforcing Jefferson’s wall of separation until it became “absolute” gave Kennedy a mighty shield. Santorum found his strongest backers in this cycle’s Republican caucuses and primaries not among fellow Catholics, but among evangelicals—descendants of the people Kennedy sought to placate. So Santorum welcomed his “people of faith” to the public square, where they could stand as Washingtonian pillars of his campaign.

One thing has changed between the 18th century and now. None of the founding fathers—not even John Adams on a bad day— would have talked about throwing up.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.