AUSTIN -- When presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed a speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, it was largely to calm fears that America's first Catholic president would be beholden to the pope.
"I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute," Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960. "Where no Catholic prelate would tell a president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."
Fifty-two years later, Republican contender Rick Santorum hopes to become America's second Catholic president. However Santorum takes exception to Kennedy's view, going so far as to say that speech made him want to "throw up."
"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," Santorum explained Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "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. This is the First Amendment."
The two views couldn't be more different.
"What's extraordinary is whereas in 1960 there was a great deal of concern about religion infecting American politics too much, today there seems to be a large proportion of at least the Republican electorate that's concerned that our politics have too little religion in them and want to see religion as an assurance of morality and an assurance of patriotism as well," said University of Texas professor of history and government Jeremi Suri.
Attorney Johnathan Saenz defends the representation of religious beliefs in government.
Director of Legislative Affairs for the Liberty Institute in Austin, an organization which promotes limited government and Judeo-Christian values, Saenz points to the issues of abortion and gay marriage.
Supporters have accused opponents of trying to legislate religious morality, but Saenz says many of those same supporters themselves use religion to promote their own causes.
"If you talk about AIDS, and the homeless, and things happening on poverty, it's okay to bring your faith into it, and I don't think it's fair to treat people differently on that issue," said Saenz.
Suri says interest in religious issues follows a cycle, and tends to re-emerge when voters feel secular institutions fail to address broader problems like the economy.
"When they feel those institutions are not working well, as people today feel they are not working well, then they turn to religion as a way to find new inspiration," explained Suri. "And that's, in some sense, the nature of American politics."
Where Kennedy faced suspicion and outright bigotry over his Catholicism, Rick Santorum has made it a pillar of his campaign. Whether Santorum's political message will sell will be up to voters to decide.
Recent polls reflect a growing uncertainty over the GOP race and the general election.
A survey conducted Feb. 22 through Feb. 26 by Gallup shows Mitt Romney leading Santorum 32 percent to 28 percent, while a Politico survey conducted Feb. 19 to Feb. 22 shows Santorum leading Romney 36 percent to 34 percent.
The same Politico survey shows President Barack Obama leading both Romney and Santorum in a head-to-head matchup by about a 10 percent margin. The polling contradicts a Feb. 20 to Feb. 21 survey by Gallup showing Santorum leading Obama by three percent, and a Feb. 24 to Feb. 26 Rasmussen poll showing Romney beating Obama by two percent.
Primary voting begins on Tuesday in Arizona and in Romney's home state of Michigan.