Saperstein: "What responsibility do you believe elected officials or candidates have to address hateful or bigoted speech when it takes place in their presence?"
Washington, D.C., March 27, 2012 - On March 18, 2012, presidential candidate Senator Rick Santorum attended a service held at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church presided over by Rev. Dennis Terry. Video footage emerged of Sen. Santorum applauding Rev. Terry's sermon, which encouraged those who do not believe in America as a "Christian Nation" to leave the country. In response, Rabbi David Saperstein wrote the following letter Sen. Santorum, asking him to clarify his views on the appropriate relationship between religion and politics:
Dear Senator Santorum,
You have raised significant issues of faith in your campaign. In this context, the troubling incident over faith issues that occurred this past weekend raises issues that need to be addressed. On Sunday evening, while attending a service at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana, you applauded as Rev. Dennis Terry expounded on the history of the United States as a "Christian nation." He criticized major religious traditions by stating that belief in Buddha, Allah or Muhammad is not part of the American way. While an inaccurate depiction (Muslims do not worship Muhammad, nor Buddhists, Buddha), the clear suggestion is that Muslims and Buddhists are not part of the fabric of America. Rev. Terry stated that our economic woes can be solved by putting "God back in America," in government and in our public schools.
After this sermon, you were called up to the stage to receive Rev. Terry's blessing. Your thoughts concerning Rev. Terry's message are far from clear; you stood to give him a resounding ovation after his sermon, yet when speaking with reporters in Moline, Illinois, on Monday you distanced yourself from his words simply stating that Rev. Terry is entitled to his own beliefs and that you wholeheartedly believe in the freedom of religion.
We certainly concur with your later statements but your contradictory actions and statements raise the following issues, which I hope you will address.
Should we take your applause as affirmation of the sentiments of the speech? Are there parts of Rev. Terry's message with which you disagree? If so, what are they?
Rev. Terry said "There's only one God, and his name is Jesus...If you don't love America, if you don't like the way we do things, I have one thing to say -- get out! I said we don't worship Buddha, we don't worship Muhammad, we don't worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God's son Jesus Christ." He likened certain religious beliefs with not loving America, asserting those people have no place in America. You subsequently affirmed, "I believe in the freedom of religion and all religions are welcome." Was this intended as a specific repudiation of Rev. Terry's statement?
What responsibility do you believe elected officials or candidates have to address hateful or bigoted speech when it takes place in their presence? Is the responsibility greater if it is said by one of the candidate's supporters? Are there are circumstances in which you would refuse to stand by someone espousing hate speech? What are they and why not here?
After Rev. Terry's speech, you came on stage and were blessed by him. Accepting the blessing came across to many as embracing the religious/political sentiments he had just conveyed. Is that what you intended? Are there clergy from whom you would not accept a blessing? What statements or actions would cause you to draw such a line?
I truly believe your responses can be invaluable in helping the nation to understand the proper role of religion in our political system and I believe that much of the public would look forward to understanding your views on these vital issues.
Sincerely, Rabbi David Saperstein Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism