Santorum's lesson for liberals

Rick Santorum joins in a prayer before a campaign rally in Dixon, Ill., this week. SCOTT OLSON/ Getty Images
Rick Santorum joins in a prayer before a campaign rally in Dixon, Ill., this week. SCOTT OLSON/ Getty Images
Posted: March 21, 2012

Rick Santorum and I go way back. That's how it feels anyway. Over the past 15 years, I've written more than a dozen columns condemning something Santorum said.

This column is different. I come to praise Rick Santorum, not to bury him.

Put simply, Santorum is authentic. Like him or not, he says exactly what he thinks. And that surely helps explain why he poses a pesky challenge to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, who says exactly what he thinks will get him elected.

Santorum also speaks in simple, moralistic language: Some things are good, and other things are evil. And that's the language my fellow liberals need to rediscover.

Consider the recent flap over Santorum's 2008 claim that America is under attack by an old enemy: the devil himself. "Satan has his sights on the United States of America," Santorum said in a speech.

To his liberal critics, Santorum's remarks were further proof of his primitive ideology. In polite circles, you see, we just don't talk about Satan. Never mind that a 2007 Gallup poll found that 7 of 10 Americans say they believe in the devil.

Defending his 2008 remarks, Santorum said, "I'm a person of faith. I believe in good and evil." If that's a "disqualifier" for the presidency, he added, "we're going to have a very small pool of candidates."

In the past, the pool of Americans who spoke in such terms was much deeper and wider. Progressives freely used the same black-and-white language to denounce the nation's transgressions.

To the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example, slavery was not simply "unfair" or "inequitable." It was a "sin against Heaven." Americans of all races were "created in the same divine image," he insisted.

After the Civil War, industrial workers invoked similar imagery to demand decent wages and safety. "What was right in the time of Moses, Mordecai, and Ehud will be right forever," a mine workers' union declared. "God shall ... save the children of the needy, and shall break into pieces the oppressor."

The same uncompromising moral language also powered the civil rights movement. Racial segregation was "not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. argued; it was "morally wrong and sinful."

King argued that everyone in America was in some way to blame for its sins. Only when we accepted our shared moral responsibility would we fulfill our duty to God and each other.

Now try to think of a contemporary liberal politician who uses such stark, biblical language to denounce America's wickedness. You can't. We have ceded that idiom to conservatives like Santorum, who finds evil in gay marriage and abortion rather than in social inequality.

Last week, at a conference I attended in California, the keynote speaker was New Republic editor Timothy Noah, the author of a brilliant forthcoming book about inequality in America. As Noah demonstrated, the top 1 percent of Americans collect more than 20 percent of the nation's income - more than double their share in 1973. And as America recovers from its most recent economic crisis, the gap has widened even further.

Gloom filled the room as liberals shook their heads in despair. They decried this trend as inefficient and inequitable. But nobody called it iniquitous - or sinful, evil, or wrong.

It is evil. And so is America, if we let millions suffer in poverty while a few prosper.

That's the language we once used to call the nation to account for its sins. We need to speak it again, so the whole world hears.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

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