What Rick Santorum Doesn't Understand About American History

Jefferson and Lincoln would find Santorum's cleaving to Roman Catholic Church dogma a four-alarm fire.

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Rick Santorum likes to claim the high ground of American history. Just the other day he looked back at 1776 and "the men and women who signed the Declaration of Independence."

The men gathered in that room in Philadelphia no doubt would be dumbfounded to see what they had wrought in the former senator from Pennsylvania.

First a correction: no woman graced the hall in the heart of the elegant colonial city. Women had no place in the Declaration, as written by the erudite 33-year-old redhead, Thomas Jefferson. All men were created equal, the line read.

The Revolutionary signers were distinguished white men with great collective candlepower. Many had vast holdings of landed wealth and scores of slaves. John Hancock was the richest man in Massachusetts. Most were raised as English gentlemen, especially the Virginians, and many of their wives and sisters had their lives cut short by childbirth. Just FYI, Rick.

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But as his gaffe shows, Santorum's strong suit never was women's progress. His rigid Catholic conception of, well, conception is so weighted toward male hegemony at home and the workplace that we women in the 21st century should be afraid, very afraid of what he would do to our human rights and liberties. But my polished "politerati" friends think he's playing a jester or a fool that they can't take seriously.

My message to them: Santorum is in dead earnest and would be to free thinking women what Joseph McCarthy was to Communists. Frankly, my dears, he does not give a damn about us.

Santorum might be surprised to learn the gathering of gentlemen in frock coats in the summer of '76 was a bunch of snobs, his word for those who seek a college education. The Founding Fathers of the new republic were the best and the brightest. Jefferson may not have even been the smartest guy in the room containing Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. For the most part, the signers had not only beautiful penmanship but also classical educations. Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary. Education was valued as a mark of a Virginia Cavalier gentleman and a Yankee entrepreneur. An inquiring mind in the rising Enlightenment school of reason and science was a good thing back then, Rick.

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The saddest irony is how Jefferson's belief in "building a wall of separation between Church and State" got lost at sea in the Republican presidential debates. All you have to do is read Jefferson's mellifluous writings to see how deeply he distrusted the Church of Rome almost as much as he abhorred the English crown. The achievement he counted among his greatest was religious toleration in Virginia.

Note to Rick: religious toleration meant more than freedom to worship. It was also a "no trespassing" sign to any religion, a warning to stay out of the public square. On the new slate of the republic, Jefferson insisted upon no interference, no heavy hand from religious authorities. Further, he declared, civil rights should not depend on one's religion. Jefferson was frankly not that religious—nor was Abraham Lincoln, by the way,

Jefferson and Lincoln would find Santorum's cleaving to Roman Catholic dogma a four-alarm fire, especially the idea of extending it to the populace to subjugate women.That was not what they meant, not what they were writing and fighting for, Rick, back in 1776 and 1861.

Now we come to John F. Kennedy, Santorum's historical nemesis and yes, something of a snob. It's not the worst thing in the world, is it, to care about excellence?

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In making it crystal clear the Vatican would never influence him as the first Catholic president, Kennedy showed how well he understood Jeffersonian thought. The American president would not bow or hew to any religious authority, Kennedy reassured voters. The pope had his realm, the president had his. As Jefferson put it, best to keep religion a private matter between a man and his maker—never to influence public affairs. Even with his iconic ironic distance, a certain je ne sais quoi, Kennedy took history to heart. History was not just for the history books.

Santorum's vibe is more like, je ne sais rien: I know nothing.

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