WASHINGTON -- In trying to become the second Roman Catholic president of the United States, Rick Santorum will seek to refute a key campaign plank of the first.
Fifty years after John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech addressing his faith and the need to separate church and state, Mr. Santorum will speak today in Houston about the need for an increased role for religion in public life.
The former Penn Hills resident and two-term U.S. senator is publicly weighing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. For the last year he has traveled extensively across the country -- including key early primary states Iowa (five trips), New Hampshire (four trips) and South Carolina (four trips) -- raising his national profile before conservative audiences.
Central to Mr. Santorum's national reputation are his outspoken conservative Christian views and strong stances while in the Senate against abortion and same-sex marriage.
In the same city where Mr. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association, Mr. Santorum will speak tonight to an audience at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts school.
The speech is titled "A Charge to Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square" and billed as a "challenge" to Mr. Kennedy's remarks a half-century ago. Mr. Santorum was not made available for an interview about the speech.
The event was organized through the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a group that applies Judeo-Christian values to public policy. Mr. Santorum is a senior fellow at the center, and in 2007 established its Program to Protect America's Freedom, which examines anti-American and anti-Western threats throughout the world.
Mr. Santorum, who lost his seat to Sen. Bob Casey by a wide margin in 2006, writes a weekly email newsletter for the group called "The Gathering Storm."
The union of Christianity and policy mirrors the message of Fox News host Glenn Beck at an Aug. 28 rally on the Mall in Washington that drew tens of thousands. Mr. Beck, whose influence has soared among conservatives, said on his radio show in February that Mr. Santorum would be his early choice for president.
"No doubt Santorum would like to be the choice of the Beck faction of the Republican Party," said Larry Sabato, the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"Of course, they have lots of choices. ... Why would he be supported over a Mike Huckabee or a Sarah Palin?"
Mr. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Ms. Palin, the former Alaska governor who was a co-headliner at the Beck rally, carry more national recognition. But they have been coy about their 2012 ambitions.
In fact, Mr. Sabato said, the best chance for Mr. Santorum to win the nomination would be if the economy rebounds, which would strengthen President Barack Obama's re-election chances and possibly scare away many of the better known candidates. And if the economy recedes from the forefront, Mr. Sabato said, social issues could drive the Republican conversation.
In that case, Mr. Santorum's strong Catholicism could be an asset, as opposed to a liability, as it was to Mr. Kennedy.
The Sept. 12, 1960, address by Mr. Kennedy, locked in a tight presidential race with Republican Richard Nixon, was a key moment in the campaign.
Many non-Catholics feared Mr. Kennedy would be a puppet of the Vatican, but Mr. Kennedy -- while not backing down from his faith -- strongly asserted that he would serve the American people above all.
"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him," Mr. Kennedy said.
Later, he added: "I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views -- in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."
In the past, Mr. Santorum has not advocated for a religious institution to control U.S. policymaking, but rather for politicians to use their religion when making decisions and be more willing to discuss it.
"Political consultants warn candidates to stay away from [social] issues because they are so personal and emotionally charged," Mr. Santorum wrote in a recent column in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The abortion debate is one on which I chose to ignore their advice. The reason: I simply could not square voting to permit the killing of an innocent baby in the womb with the Constitution I swore to defend, the God I try to obey, or the people I pledged to serve."
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.