Over the first three years of President Obama’s term in office, Americans have watched while the government took their incomes and bailed out the financial and automotive industries, among others; while their rights were stripped from them by the Affordable Care Act; while President Obama’s promises to cut spending fell flat; while promises to keep the unemployment rate under 8% proved themselves to be empty rhetoric; while the national debt exceeded America’s annual GDP; while guns were funneled into Mexico, further fueling the violent drug war now being waged at our southern border; while the Dodd-Frank Act and other legislation like it was passed, restricting the rights of the producers on whom Americans depend for jobs; while money was wasted on President Obama’s pet projects such as Solyndra; while gas prices continue to soar in the midst of the President’s decision to halt the construction of the Keystone Pipeline; while the value of the dollar continues its descent into worthlessness; while, more than any time since the Great Depression, President Obama has demonstrated the utter ineffectiveness and danger of government force when it attempts to manage the economy. In light of such a grim review of America’s recent politico-economic history, one would expect the entire 2012 election cycle – including the Republican primary – to rarely deviate from America’s economic issues which are in such dire need of being resolved.
Unfortunately, largely thanks to the persistence of a certain senator from Pennsylvania, the Republican presidential primarily has veered sharply off course, away from the economic problems which now grip this country. For reasons this author finds unfathomable, many Republican voters have cast aside the mantras of the Tea Party regarding “free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government”, opting instead to focus on that political bridge to nowhere for conservatives: social issues.
More than any other candidate, Senator Rick Santorum is recurrently guilty of a misdirected political focus – his surprisingly prolonged presence in the primary and relatively high number of primary victories when compared to Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have only assisted in the dissemination of this misdirected focus across the entire nation. Perhaps his own record of expanding the government’s role in the economic sphere is too extensive for him to benefit from focusing on those issues, but whatever the case, Santorum has postured himself as a hero for the religious far right. When not engaging in vehement and irrational criticisms of President Obama’s decision to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, one of Santorum’s most unique policy positions is his continued assertion that the states have the right to ban contraceptives if they desire to do so. Despite the fact that 62% of women in the United States between ages 15 and 44 currently employ some kind of contraception when they engage in sexual intercourse and that more than 99% of American women use contraception at least once in their lifetimes, Santorum remains undeterred in his resolve on this matter.
To be clear, Santorum has stated on several occasions that he does not support banning contraceptives, but that he merely believes states reserve the right to do so. Even so, his support or lack thereof for actually banning contraceptives is irrelevant. Instead, his blatantly anti-liberty, anti-individualist conception of states’ rights on this issue is the primary point of concern, particularly since the Supreme Court has already addressed this exact issue almost fifty years ago.
In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut state law which prohibited the use of contraceptives. The law, which had been on the books since 1879, was rarely enforced, but any attempts at striking the law down failed to reach the Supreme Court until Griswold. The law itself forbade the use of “any drug, medicinal article or incident for the purpose of preventing conception”, requiring that violators be fined no less than $50 or imprisoned for no less than sixty days, though not more than a year, for any infraction – doctors who offered medical advice were subject to the same penalties. Upon review of the case, Justice Douglas wrote in his opinion that he and his colleagues were ruling in favor of “a right to privacy older than the Bill of Rights – older than political parties, older than our school system.” This law, explained Justice Douglas, could not stand in the face of First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendment protections of individual privacy (although all he truly needed to cite was the Ninth). Though Justice Douglas’s ruling only applied specifically to the right of married couples, this case enumerated the right to privacy to the states and set the precedent for further expansions of that right (Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) upheld the same principle for unmarried couples).
For Sen. Santorum to continually fly directly in the face of Court precedent on this matter displays an incredible level of contempt for the document which structures our nation’s government – not simply because Griswold v. Connecticut is precedent, but because it is good precedent. Were it that the Supreme Court had not forbidden the states from banning contraception, it would still be abhorrent to suggest that they do or should have that kind of authority.
In fact, Sen. Santorum’s irrational list of grievances against the Constitution extends so far that he even desires an amendment which would invalidate gay marriages in the states which have permitted them. More than that, he has stated on numerous occasions that he would work to reinstate the recently repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, a repeal which is both incredibly popular with average Americans and just, in the sense that it expands individual liberty. After all, if someone is devoted enough to preserving the individual liberty that this country values (or once valued) so highly that he or she would join the military and fight for it, one cannot call restricting the rights of those individuals to speak freely about their sexuality as anything but a massive miscarriage of justice.
Despite all the talk of “traditional American values” – whatever that means outside of defending individual liberty and pursuing one’s self-interests – Sen. Santorum’s arguments and those offered by like-minded individuals in the Republican Party are primarily religious in nature. There is no secular justification for banning any of the things listed above: the rights of a straight couple to the sacred nature of their marital union is not injured by allowing gay individuals to enter into a similar sort of relationship, the rights of individuals who choose not to use contraception are not injured by allowing others to use contraception, and the rights of no man or woman – military or not – are injured by allowing gay men and women in uniform to make their sexual preferences known.
What does this mean in terms of Sen. Santorum’s view of the Constitution? On February 26th, the Senator explained his stance in a response to a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy to Baptist ministers in Houston while on the campaign trail. In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Santorum stated:
“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, ‘faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.’ Go on and read the speech ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’ It was an absolutist doctrine that was foreign at the time of 1960.”
Individuals on the religious right often point to the fact that the words “separation of church and state” are not in the Constitution, thus justifying their obstinacy to the principle. True, the wording of the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is derived from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson during his presidency, not from the Constitution, but if the religious right seeks to prove the absence of the principle through the absence of the wording, then they must also accept that the phrases “separation of powers,” “checks and balances,” and “judicial review” do not appear in the Constitution and therefore are not applicable to our government. The absurdity of this conclusion speaks for itself.
In actuality, the Constitution does construct a wall of separation between church and state, something which the Roman Catholic Kennedy correctly argued to assuage the fears of a country which, until that time, had elected only Protestant presidents. Though Madison’s original vision of the Constitution included this wall implicitly through the limited scope of government authority, the enumeration of the First Amendment made this separation explicit: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As it relates to religion, the First Amendment has two prongs – the first forbids the establishment of religion by the government in the United States, and the second forbids the government from interfering with religion (beyond the practices of any given religion violating the rights of others). Sen. Santorum, unfortunately, only focuses on the Free Exercise Clause.
By no means should one construe this to be an attack upon the Free Exercise Clause or Sen. Santorum’s and the religious right’s support for it. Indeed, it has been and continues to be an invaluable piece of our Supreme Law of the Land. Moreover, it serves as a barrier between religious (and nonreligious) individuals and the government, providing a rather wide avenue for legal challenges against statist government policies when secular appeals to individual rights fail, seeing as the jurisprudence for such rights is not, as of yet, complete in the United States. Examine, for example, the recent outrage exhibited by Roman Catholics against an Obamacare policy which requires the Catholic Church and its institutions (e.g. schools and hospitals) to fund insurance policies that cover contraceptives for its employees. According to the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Catholics are not to use contraceptives, thus bringing Obama’s statist agenda in direct conflict with the rights of Catholics (and others) to practice their religion freely and peacefully, even if on such a mundane issue as compelling them to buy contraceptives against their will. As such, the policy expressly violates the First Amendment and should be overturned.
However, it must be remembered that the Free Exercise Clause is a corollary right, not a primary one. The primary right from which the Free Exercise Clause is derived is man’s right to live his own life in the absence of initiated force, a right which invalidates statist policies as they apply to all men, not just members of a certain religion.
In any case, the Free Exercise Clause is not the one which Sen. Santorum forgets – that would be the Establishment Clause. While he is quick to wrap himself in the First Amendment when his religious liberty is threatened, his defense of initiating patently religious policies against others at both the state and federal level is unconstitutional under even weak interpretations of the Establishment Clause. Even policies that Santorum does not support himself, such as banning contraceptives at the state level, are impermissible under the Establishment Clause, as the justification for these laws is almost entirely religious in nature, not secular as required by the Constitution. Only laws which protect individual rights on secular principles of reason and logic have any place in our government – forwarding the ideals of a particular religious doctrine does not. If Sen. Santorum cannot fully comprehend something as simple as a phrase which begins with the words “Congress shall make no law…,” one can rationally raise numerous concerns about other parts of the Constitution which he may misinterpret as president, and has done so already. When it comes to the politics, there is little in the realm of statist policies that rational individuals should consider “inconceivable” for the government to enact, consequently requiring constant vigilance against such policies and those who are likely to enact them.
In the midst of all Sen. Santorum’s unreasonable stances on social issues and despite the high levels of support he has received within the Republican Party for those stances, particularly in the Midwest, these issues are not likely to disappear throughout the remaining months of the primaries. The religious right, as it so often does, may very well hijack the Republican Party for its own interests, thus ignoring the cries of the consistently rational elements within economically-oriented Tea Party. Clearly, much more philosophic education is required in America before it is ready for any sort of capitalist politics. Even so, rational individuals should continue stressing that which is immediately important, repeating to their elected officials that now famous campaign slogan from one of President Clinton’s old campaigns: “It’s the economy, stupid!” To paraphrase the opening lines from President Kennedy’s 1960 speech, while the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here in this essay, I want to emphasize that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 2012 campaign.