Politics of Rick Santorum's theology: Is faith a kingmaker or deal-breaker?

Rick Santorum, playing the religion card, appears to be winning support of evangelical Christians ahead of potentially pivotal GOP primaries in Arizona and Michigan. 

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium, on Feb. 21, in Phoenix, Arizona.

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The language of personal faith appears to be helping GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum turn lingering doubts among Protestant evangelicals about Mitt Romney's Mormonism (and even President Obama's Christianity) into a poll surge.

Mr. Santorum, the former US senator from Pennsylvania, was excoriated by pundits this week, after a 2008 speech to Ave Maria University surfaced in which he suggested that Satan is waging a “spiritual war” on the United States. Earlier in the week, Santorum, a Roman Catholic and staunch social conservative, talked about Mr. Obama adhering to “phony theology,” a quip that Santorum later insisted wasn't about the president's faith but about his support of “radical environmentalism.”

Then the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, added to the controversy by suggesting he couldn't “categorically” say whether Obama, who has repeatedly stated that he's a Christian, may be totally genuine in his Christian beliefs. He also said, when asked about Romney's faith, that most evangelicals don't consider Mormonism to be a Christian faith.

Amid an unusually unsettled nomination process, the focus on faith may be just the latest example in which a candidate attempts to draw a distinction for undecided voters while forcing his competitors to defend their beliefs. Voters will ultimately decide whether a candidate's theology is a valid issue in a political campaign, or whether the debate should stick to concerns such as jobs, the economy, and illegal immigration.

At the same time, Santorum is striking a chord with religious voters. He has nearly doubled his support among white, evangelical Republican voters in the past month, going from 22 percent support in mid-January to 41 percent by Feb. 15, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While a higher percentage of mainline Protestants support Mitt Romney, 21 percent now support Santorum, up from 9 percent in mid-January.

Persuading Christian conservatives, and evangelical Protestants in particular, that he shares their morals may pay off for Santorum in next Tuesday's pivotal primaries in Arizona and Michigan. But religious probing is also a way for voters, traditionally, to take stock of candidates' values and beliefs.

“American religions serve as a proxy for morality, and what we really want to know is whether or not our presidential candidates are good, decent, honorable people,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University, in New York. “The flawed premise, of course, is that somebody who does not have religious affiliation cannot be a moral person, and that's demonstrably false. But we don't know how to ask the question in any other way.”

In Santorum's case, former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Tuesday criticized the “lamestream media” for getting “wee-weed up” about Santorum's “Satan” comments back in 2008, suggesting the language would be familiar to any American who has gone to Sunday school. Santorum's general point – debating the idea of good versus evil – is regular Sunday morning fare in America, where 120 million people go to church regularly.

“The theology that [Obama] would adopt by reading the book of Luke results in him being able to say we need to increase taxes on hardworking Americans – that’s OK, but Rick Santorum talking about good and evil isn’t OK?” Ms. Palin told Fox News. [maybe just take this section out: "Mainstream media – they make me sick. They’re hypocrites, and we need to call them out.” 

But other conservative bloggers, who say the Satan speech has largely been a distraction, doubt if over-emphasizing faith is sound campaign policy. Santorum “did say these things, and he’ll have to have an answer for these things when queried,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said. Such a query may come as soon as Thursday night at a GOP candidate debate in Arizona, to be aired on CNN

"This was a very self-limiting approach by Santorum," Republican strategist Rich Galen told the news site Newsmax. "By bringing these issues to the fore, Santorum has reminded everyone else why they don't want him to be the nominee."

Santorum's reference to Obama's "theology," and similar comments like one in December when he said Obama and his allies adhere to a "religion of self" over biblical theology, could backfire in a general election – especially because Obama comes across as confident in a faith that he has invoked many times as president. But Santorum's attempt to distinguish himself from Romney may already be gaining traction, as evidenced by polls showing Santorum closing in in both Arizona and Michigan. 

“For Santorum it's really a two-fer: He can vaguely ... cast aspersions on the president, but also highlight the otherness of Romney's Mormonism.... Romney, frankly, keeps fumbling that issue and refuses to clear it up,” says Professor Balmer.

Romney's Mormon faith is often cited as one potential reason he hasn't yet sealed the deal with conservative evangelical voters. Romney's usual answer to questions about his religion, that he leaves theology to the Mormon church, fails to give voters the kinds of insights they seeking into how Romney's faith may affect his policies, Balmer says.

At the same time, Romney, too, is warming to using faith as a debating point, suggesting at a campaign event in Michigan on Tuesday that Obama has “fought against religion” and has attempted to impose a “secular” agenda on the body politic.

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