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There are two seemingly disconnected stories about religious zealotry swirling around today, both involving Rick Santorum et ilk.  But there is a deep connection, and together they are putting people’s lives at risk, as they have throughout the ages.

The lead story is GOP religious zealot Rick Santorum’s poor understanding, if not willful misrepresentaton, of the U.S. Constitution.  Santorum seems convinced that the path to the Presidency runs over the Constitution’s First Amendment warning against the establishment of religion.

Like many self-righteous zealots, Mr. Santorum often quotes the First Amendment’s stricture that Congress shall make no law limiting the free exercise of religion.  But I’ve yet to hear him mention or explain the equally essential previous “establishment clause.”  That clause prohibits the state from establishing a religion and thus prevents any religious faith, via its believers or its established church, from using the state to impose and enforce their beliefs on others.

That latter prohibition is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” and this story came about in reference to Senator John F. Kennedy’s promise, as a Presidential candidate in 1960, that he would honor that Constitutional doctrine, neither using the state to impose his religious views on everyone else nor allowing his Church to dictate how to govern as President.

So when Rick Santorum repeated his view that Kennedy’s promise to honor separation of church and state makes him want to throw up, he’s telling us that he wants to puke on a critical piece of the U.S. Constitution.  And it’s not just any part; it’s the very first “freedom” mentioned in the Bill of Rights.   It would be helpful if reporters like ABC’s Stephanoupulous would remind viewers that this is what the man is saying.

Santorum is, of course, only one of many who believe in the primacy of religious authority and who seem not to worry about having religious authority exercise some control over the state . . . as long as it’s his/their religion.  It doesn’t seem to have penetrated his narrow philosophy that this might be problematic for his brand of Catholicism if the religious views being imposed on everyone were those of Mitt Romney’s sect, or the Unitarians, the United Methodist Church, even the Jesuits or Jews, or Christian Scientists, or Muslims.

But Santorum evades these troublesome questions by misrepresenting the issue, as he did on ABC:

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum said.

“That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square,” he said.

Of course, no one has ever suggested such nonsense.  There is nothing in the Constitution or in the views of any prominent politician that even remotely suggests that people who have religious beliefs shouldn’t hold office or participate in the public discourse.  Santorum is either lying or being disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

The Constitution’s wisdom is that true religious and political liberty depend first on guarding against the view that anyone’s personal religious beliefs, no matter how strongly held, justify using the power of the state to impose those religious beliefs on everyone else. When Santorum tells us this wisdom makes him want to throw up, he’s implying he’s fine with using the power of government to do just that, but of course he assumes only his belief system will be used in that manner.

The people of Afghanistan have a different belief system, but many of them, like Rick Santorum, are more than willing to remove any separation between church and state.  Mere statements against a religious belief or icon, or any disrespect of the holy writ are not merely sins within the religious sphere; they require punishment sanctioned though the power of the state, even to the point of killing the offender.  In this framework, it then follows that any defiling of your sacred books warrants death, either officially or implicitly sanctioned by the state.

Lest anyone think such views are somehow unique to some “primitive society,” try wading through the hate-filled comments at right wing sites reacting to today’s stories from Afghanistan.

The tragic killing and wounding of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in response to the Koran burning shows us why the first phrase in the Bill of Rights is at least as important as the clause about freedom of exercise.  The tolerance and forbearance required by the establishment and exercise clauses require a separation of church and state to make sure religious zealots don’t use religious affronts as an excuse to kill each other and the rest of us, too.

So when Rick Santorum tells you this church/state separation concept makes him want to throw up, the American people should tell him to take it outside . . . and then get a good public education.