The John F. Kennedy era is finally just about over. In a famous speech to a group of Texan ministers, Kennedy, still a senator at that time, insisted that in America "the separation of church and state is absolute." He was trying to make clear that, as a Catholic, he believed that a president's religious views should be "his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."
Both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have taken issue with the Kennedy model in their campaigns for the Republican nomination for president. In a 2007 speech about religious faith, Romney said: "The notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God ... They are wrong."
Santorum, while sharply dismantling Kennedy's assertions, also noted that the former president got something right: He said that he would resign rather than violate his conscience. How far we have come in the Obama administration, where the president announces a federal mandate that some of us violate ours.
Even with White-House repair work, the administration's power-grab will be an election issue, because it goes right to the center of so much that matters in our country's physical and spiritual lives. There is an "author of liberty," as Mitt Romney put it in his speech on faith. And it is not President Obama.