U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum got himself in hot water recently when he attacked gay people in a media interview, going so far as to compare homosexuality to incest and bestiality.
Criticizing legal precedent barring government intrusion into Americans' private lives, the Pennsylvania Republican blasted the Supreme Court for a line of decisions about birth control, abortion and other issues dating back to 1965.
"It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist, in my opinion, in the United States Constitution," he told the Associated Press.
It wasn't the first time Santorum has popped off on a sensitive topic. Last year, he proudly proclaimed his belief that politicians should rely on their religious beliefs when formulating public policy.
In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Santorum criticized fellow Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy for endorsing church-state separation and assuring Americans that he would not attempt to impose the doctrines of his church through the secular law. That vow, Santorum said, has caused "much harm in America."
No one expects politicians to repudiate their personal religious faith. But elected officials must be aware that they represent people of many different traditions (and none) and that any effort to use the law to further the narrow theological goals of a specific denomination raises constitutional and policy concerns.
Some devoutly religious people have turned to their faith as an inspiration to expand social justice and civil liberties. Many clergy, for example, helped lead the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
That movement had noble goals that both religious and secular Americans could share: to expand human rights and bring justice to a long-oppressed people. It's a far cry from the goals of the repressive neo-Puritans of today's Religious Right who seek to use their faith to curtail freedoms and impose a confining dogma on all of us.
Santorum's constant attacks on Americans' right to privacy and his efforts to force everyone to support ministries through religious school vouchers and "faith-based initiatives" are examples of the latter approach.
President Kennedy knew why Santorum was wrong. Kennedy's eloquent reaffirmation of the importance of church-state separation has stood the test of time. Far from causing "much harm," Kennedy's vision has made our nation freer and more welcoming to people of all religious and philosophical points of view.
The measure of a politician's greatness is taken not in how many people he oppresses or how many rights he takes away, but in how many people he frees and how many he inspires. That's why, 100 years from now, Kennedy will still be fondly hailed as a great president while Santorum will be just another wannabe theocrat, forgotten in the pages of history.
To Rick Santorum we can only say: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.