NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Rick Santorum might have misinterpreted his understanding of John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about the absolute separation of church and state in America.

Two months before his victorious bid for president, Kennedy addressed the Houston Ministerial Association to convince American voters that he would not allow his Catholic faith to interfere with his duties as a commander-in-chief.

Santorum may have misinterpreted the historical context of Kennedy's 1960 address.

Santorum reiterated Sunday that Kennedy's comment about absolute separation made him want to "throw up."

"The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country," Santorum said on

ABC's

"This Week."

Santorum, who has been a vocal champion for people of faith during the GOP presidential race, may have taken Kennedy's words a bit out of context.

"I don't think there was anything to Kennedy's speech of 1960 other than just getting the Pope out of the way," says Robert Ferrell, an Indiana University professor emeritus of American presidents.

Kennedy said in his speech that he didn't believe in an America where a public official "either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source."

Santorum, however, said Kennedy articulated a vision for the first time in America that said faith would not be allowed in the public square and that candidates wouldn't consult with persons of faith.

The address wasn't as Santorum projects it.

"It's not just a matter of

Kennedy being able to separate the two,

the speech was a matter of non-Catholics being able to be tolerant of others," says David Henry, chairman of University of Nevada-Las Vegas' communications department, and who has written about presidential campaign rhetoric.

Kennedy had a difficult time in the spring of 1960 convincing primarily Protestants that his Catholic faith wouldn't muddle his politics. Ahead of Wisconsin's April primary, for example, a Milwaukee newspaper printed on its front page the registration of voters as Democrats vs. Catholics so as to try and paint the illusion that if Kennedy won the state it would have been influenced by his religious background, says Henry.

Kennedy decidedly won the state, which led him to declare to an aide that they had buried the Catholic question.

But that wasn't the case. The then-Massachusetts senator struggled with the Catholic question during the summer. Two prominent Protestant organizations, one of which was led by

Norman Vincent Peale, bought up space in major newspapers that questioned Kennedy's ability to govern independently of the Catholic Church. This compelled Kennedy when in Houston to give his famous address.

Kennedy wasn't trying to banish faith from the campaign. In fact, he was trying to prove he could be religious in his personal life while staying secular in his political life.

"I don't understand why Santorum would see that as something that would 'make him sick' since the separation of church and state are taught as a fundamental tenet of the Constitution," Henry says.

"Throughout the address, Kennedy had to strike a balance between identification with and separation from Catholicism, for while he might want to disqualify the religious issue

of being a Catholic candidate for president, he would not want to disqualify himself as a Catholic," wrote Barbara Warnick in the

Spring 1996 issue of "Communication Quarterly." "Doing so might alienate Catholic voters and, even worse, cause him to appear personally irreligious which would seriously impair his electability."

Kennedy's speech specifically sought transparency with the Baptist ministers who had constantly questioned Kennedy's commitment to the independence of United States presidential office.

At the end of the speech, the Ministerial Association was so impressed by Kennedy's argument that they gave him a standing ovation.

"They thought his argument and the evidence of his behavior were compelling," Henry says. "That becomes the turning point for the rest of the campaign."

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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