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Here’s a good idea. Let’s say you’re a former senator. You’re running for president of the United States. You want to appeal to blue-collar, middle-class voters.

So what do you do? You attack President John F. Kennedy! Not only that. You assert, and repeat, that JFK’s 1960 speech to Baptist ministers made you want to “throw up.” If that’s not the dumbest move made by any presidential candidate ever, I don’t know what is. Welcome to the latest outrage from Rick Santorum.

Smearing Kennedy was bad enough. Despite his flaws, he’s still one of our most revered presidents. In the latest CNN poll (January 2011), 85 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the presidency – making him the most admired former president of the last half-century. Bill Clinton’s in second place. Ronald Reagan ranks third.

But bad-mouthing Kennedy’s historic speech was especially bone-headed. Remember the context. For the first time, a prominent, practicing Catholic had a serious shot at the White House. Legitimate questions were raised about his loyalty to church and country. What would happen if the pope said one thing, but American law or the Constitution said another?

JFK decided to meet the challenge directly. On Sept. 12, 1960, he appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and delivered what many historians consider one of the most powerful speeches given by any president and probably the strongest delineation of the separation of church and state. Yes, he was a Catholic, Kennedy acknowledged. But he was, first and foremost, an American.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy told the skeptical clergymen, “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.”

“I believe in an America,” he continued, “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source.”

Now, maybe I’m missing something but isn’t that the America we all believe in? Where no politician gives orders to any church, and where no religious leader gives orders to any politician? Yet after reading that speech, Santorum told a group of college students last year, “That makes me throw up.” A vomitory response he repeated on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?” he said. “You bet that makes you throw up.”

Notice, first, that Santorum totally misrepresents Kennedy’s message. JFK was not arguing that people of faith have no role in the public square. Clearly, he was arguing just the opposite: that people of faith, like him, have every right to operate in the public square – as long as they recognize where their loyalty to the church ends, and where their loyalty to the state begins. As long, in other words, as politicians aren’t telling churches what to do and religious leaders aren’t telling politicians what to do.

That’s what the separation of church and state, one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy, is all about. But that’s exactly what Santorum can’t accept. Because he believes, and has made clear, that religious doctrine – his extreme brand of Catholic doctrine – should be the law of the land. Like the pope, for example, he believes contraception is harmful to women and should be banned by law. Like the pope, he believes abortion is always wrong and should be banned by law. And he wants to impose his and the pope’s religious beliefs on all Americans. He’s exactly the kind of doctrinaire Catholic that Houston Baptist ministers were afraid of.

Santorum is, at heart, a religious zealot: a religious extremist, who wants the laws of the land to be bound by the tenets of his faith. Sound familiar? It should. Because it’s the same kind of dangerous, religious extremism we’ve learned to fear in the Middle East. The only difference between Santorum and the Taliban’s view of religion’s role in government is the type of faith they would impose on others.

Yes, we must beware of Islamist extremists. But we should beware of Christian extremists, as well.

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