The Problem with Rick Santorum, Inc.

19 02 2012

Rick Santorum is among that curious breed of folk who profess a singularly conservative theology that happens to look nothing like the belief the Bible prescribes. Otherwise known as “neo-conservative evangelicals,” these people lay claim to true Christian belief and act as if they were the mouthpiece of such belief. The more secular public has, for the most part, taken them to represent the Church as a whole, even though much of the rest of the Christian world does not understand these folks to be anything near the representations of authentic Christian belief. There is an entire swath of Christianity, in fact, who considers itself “evangelical” in the sense that it takes Scripture to be the inspired word of God and believes that Jesus is who he said he was, and who, as a result, remains steadfastly committed to the poor and disenfranchised and who support political platforms that give voice to this commitment. But you rarely hear of these folk. Why? Because our position isn’t titillating, isn’t prone to being summed up in cleverly cynical one-liners, neither provokes the political frenzy that such hyper-patriotic malcontents as the Tea Party seem singularly committed to fomenting, nor bow to the political pressures of gender or race or sexual identity politics. Our position doesn’t sell newspapers, in other words, because it isn’t prone to soundbites.

Tricky Rick is in another conundrum altogether, however, in that he’s a Roman Catholic, which in the eyes of many evangelicals doesn’t even count for Christian. Many of my students, most of whom come from conservative evangelical backgrounds, are quite taken aback by my insistence that Catholics are every bit as much Christians as they are. Often, even among my Catholic students, there is this disingenuous distinction between “Catholic” and “Christian.” So Mr. Santorum finds himself in a bit of a double-bind, in that many of the very people he’s courting find it difficult to accept him as one of their own. I must confess to a bit of private glee when I think of how the Republican party, which fashions itself as the bastion of true Christianity and decent family values, must choose between a Mormon, a Catholic, and a man on his third marriage. Not that I hold any grudge against any of these monikers, but the irony is, many Republicans do.

In an article from Reuters, we learn that Santorum said “the Obama administration . . . . was using ‘political science’ in the debate about climate change” and that his “agenda is ‘not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.'” He was speaking to a crowd of Tea Party conservatives (natch).

I guess I’d like to know what theology Santorum’s positions are based on, because the more I read his position statements, the more convinced I am that it’s a disingenuous blending of equal parts Bible and American Constitution, and therein lies the problem. We learn from his website that Americans need:

“… a system of governance that promotes human flourishing, seeks the common good and maximizes personal liberty. . . . Our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin, and that no one person or institution should have the opportunity to consolidate power, lest the freedom of others be taken away.”

Now riddle me this, Mr. Santorum. If our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin (actually, Jefferson didn’t, but that’s another issue), how is it that maximizing personal liberty, which is code for deregulation in virtually every area of life, even remotely makes sense? Wouldn’t maximizing our freedoms, by definition, lead to greater sin? That’s certainly the position of Scripture, where God makes it clear that, left to our own devices, we humans are our worst enemies and must therefore live within a set of strict moral and ethical guidelines and bear one another’s burdens when we fall and hold one another accountable in the meantime. Just read Paul’s letters to the Romans, chapters 1-3. But oddly, at other times, Santorum has said just the opposite ~ that the platform of the left is all about “I have the right to do what I want to do” (i.e. maximum personal liberty) ~ and then goes on to say that this is not the sort of freedom that our Founders envisioned. So I’m left to wonder, whose personal liberty is Santorum exactly trying to maximize? Republicans’? Neo-conservatives’? Fundamentalist Christians’? Because any way you cut it, the idea of maximizing personal liberty does not come from Scripture. All talk about freedom in any meaningful biblical sense comes from the freedom of slavery to sin, not the freedom that results in maximized personal liberty. It may be a Constitutional value, but then, the American Constitution and Scripture are not the same thing (which is a bit of a news alert to many social conservatives, including Santorum).

Santorum unabashedly believes in and promotes American exceptionalism, another one of those Republican “core Christian values.” But what is American exceptionalism if not outright idolatry? It is the view that understands America as a “city on a hill,” which is an explicit biblical designation reserved for the disciples of Christ alone and which Christ used in Matt. 5. The phrase “city on a hill” has been co-opted many times to refer to something other than the Church itself, which has conversely led to issues of confused identity. The Puritan John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” which eventually led to misguided views of American exceptionalism and to the idea that America is somehow especially blessed by God (“My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” and all that ~ which, not incidentally, ends with this stanza: “Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King”).

This is how Santorum puts it on his own website: “I truly do believe we are ‘the last best hope of earth. . .'” When Santorum channels Lincoln in this way, he is bastardizing Lincoln’s message, which was not about America being the last great hope of earth, but that the way of freedom for all people is the last best hope. The speech Lincoln gave in which he used this phrase is short, eminently readable by anyone caring to know a little bit about our own history. The context of the phrase is this:

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Notice how Lincoln is calling a way the last best hope, not a country. It is in extending freedom to all people that the last best hope resides. Not in some national identity. Turns out, Santorum’s theology is less built upon Scripture than it is upon this false ideal of American greatness. Santorum believes that America is exceptional not merely for what it has done, but intrinsically so, and he’s said as much. There is something almost divine about America ~ the city on a hill, that Promised Land of God’s favor. So for him to question Obama’s commitment to Christianity, and to claim that Obama’s theology comes from some place other than Scripture, is just plain hypocrisy.

The problem with Rick Santorum is that he, like many of his conservative cronies, has confused the American political vision with the Church’s Christian vision, and he no longer can make a meaningful distinction between the two. This is called idolatry in Scripture, and God has limited patience for such a thing.

To put it mildly.

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