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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. 

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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.

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“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.

RECOMMENDED: 'The Real Romney': 10 facts about the presidential hopeful 

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