Unfit to lead a diverse country

Santorum speaking at a breakfast in Michigan this week.
Santorum speaking at a breakfast in Michigan this week. (ERIC GAY/ Associated Press)
Posted: February 29, 2012

By Scot Lehigh

Although Rick Santorum says he's not running for pastor-in-chief, the Republican primary campaign has revealed a candidate too governed by faith to lead a diverse country.

That's not because the former Pennsylvania senator is Catholic. Rather, it's because his ultraconservative religious beliefs so inform his life, his values, and his worldview that he would not be able to separate that perspective from public-policy questions, or to decide an issue on the facts rather than faith, even if he wanted to.

Not that he does want to, of course.

The latest evidence of Santorum's out-of-the-mainstream theological outlook comes from a newly unearthed speech from 2008 in which he declared that Satan was systematically and successfully assaulting America and its great institutions. Mind you, this was not merely a metaphor.

"He attacks all of us, and he attacks all of our institutions," Santorum explained, adding that Satan had first subverted academia and then undermined mainstream Protestantism - which was now "gone from the world of Christianity" - before setting about corrupting the culture and conquering the political sphere.

Rather than disavow those remarks, Santorum this week cited them as a mark of authenticity. Authenticity, however, loses its mainstream electoral appeal when what's genuine about a candidate is a rigid, intolerant, fundamentalist perspective.

Changing the subject

Perhaps realizing as much, Santorum has tried to change the subject. Asked by CNN about that speech, he insisted it was "not relevant to what is being debated in America today."

The subject is entirely relevant to understanding Santorum's perspective, however. Based on his own various statements, Santorum sees the country as a battlefield between good and evil, forms his public-policy stances based in no small part on his religious beliefs, and feels no compunction about imposing those beliefs on others.

Now, Santorum's faith has helped him deal with personal tragedy and sorrow, and the solace he's found in religion has in turn deepened his religious commitment. But the instrumentality of religion in his own life has seemingly led him to see it as similarly essential to the life of the nation.

In comments to the National Catholic Reporter in 2002, Santorum rejected the idea that a politician should not make decisions about public policy issues based on his personal religious beliefs, saying that notion has "caused much harm in America."

"All of us have heard people say, 'I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem-cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it's not right for somebody else?"' he said. "It sounds good. But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience."

In a 2009 column in The Inquirer, Santorum was even more explicit, asserting that Catholic politicians "must be true to their consciences," and that conscience is not self-defined, but rather that "a Catholic is required to form his conscience in accordance with the church's teachings on faith and reason, and to act in a morally coherent and consistent way, both privately and publicly."

'Dangers of contraception'

It's one indication of how seriously religion shapes Santorum's view that he and his wife do not use birth control, because his church teaches that "we should not interfere with conception." Although he has maintained on occasion that he would not try to impose that view on others, he said in an October interview with a religious blog that if he were elected president, "One of the things I will talk about that . . . no president has talked about before is ... the dangers of contraception." He added that contraception is "a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." Sexual relations, he declared, are "supposed to be within marriage, for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also unitive, also procreative."

What's more, he promised that if elected president, he would "get rid of any kind of idea that you have to have abortion coverage or contraceptive coverage." That hardly sounds like a man committed to a hands-off approach.

Ardent social conservatives have of course flocked to Santorum's banner. But if the GOP is serious about the 2012 election, other Republicans need to come to grips with the reality that Santorum could not and should not lead America in the 21st century.

Scot Lehigh writes for the Boston Globe. He can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.