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Santorum's Clanging Gong

Rick Santorum’s statements over the weekend demonstrate once again why his tone and temperament make him such a poor expositor of social conservatism. There is a substantial and appealing case to be made for why JFK erred in his famous 1960 Houston speech about religion and politics, and why the legacy of that speech — delivered in an America that was far more anti-Catholic than it is today — helped created what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square” (= a public realm where religion has no meaningful place in the dialogue). Archbishop Charles Chaput made just such a case a couple of years ago.  [1] From that speech (also delivered in Houston):

For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring.  But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new.  He “‘secularize[d]’ the American presidency in order to win it.”  In other words,  “[P]recisely because Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of [American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to ‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially his own – in order to win that office.”6

In Massa’s view, the kind of secularity pushed by the Houston speech “represented a near total privatization of religious belief – so much a privatization that religious observers from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant fence commented on its remarkable atheistic implications for public life and discourse.”  And the irony — again as told by Massa — is that some of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected.  In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public square by privatizing personal belief.  The very effort to ‘safeguard’ the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . . contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”

Fifty years after Kennedy’s Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before.  But I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.  The life of our country is no more “Catholic” or “Christian” than it was 100 years ago.  In fact it’s arguably less so.  And at least one of the reasons for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance.  And too many just don’t really believe.  Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles.  But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, “I doubt it.”

Read the whole thing. You may disagree with it, of course — I do not disagree with it — but it is a thoughtful argument that invites engagement.

Here’s Santorum’s take on the JFK speech, from ABC yesterday [2]. Excerpt:

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum said.

“That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square,” he said.

 The headlines today, predictably, are about Rick Santorum’s queasy stomach. Once again, Road Rage Rick swings a culture-war broadaxe when a stiletto is required. He sounds anything but presidential when he talks like this. To be clear, the problem I see is not that he’s wrong about JFK’s speech and its effects; it’s that he articulates his objection in crude, semi-hysterical language that’s easy to caricature and to dismiss.
Similarly, Santorum’s inability to resist lobbing a crude culture-war grenade screwed up a perfectly legitimate and necessary critique of the idea that all Americans should go to college. Here’s what he said [3]:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lit into President Obama at a Americans for Prosperity Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan over his advocacy for higher learning. “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum sniped. “What a snob!”

The crowd responded favorably to the former Pennsylvania Senator’s remarks, applauding and cheering to his putdown of the president.

“Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands!” Santorum added. “There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

What a snob! Good grief. Santorum also said that liberal professors want to take religion away from their students. That may or may not be the case, but as Charles Murray points out in “Coming Apart” (and as has been documented often in social science studies), college-educated people are more likely to be religious than working-class folks. If your child goes to college, he or she has a greater chance of holding on to religious belief than if he or she does not. That doesn’t fit Santorum’s preferred populist narrative, but it happens to be true.

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69 Comments To "Santorum's Clanging Gong"

#1 Comment By johan On February 28, 2012 @ 8:16 am

With Dr Andrew Sullivan, I very much hope that Santorum is the nominee. His combination of religious extremism and foreign policy bellicosity is the essence of modern conservative/Republican identity in its purest form. Let there be a national referendum on this in November.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 28, 2012 @ 9:35 am

Oh, what fun. I agree with William Dalton, Clare Krishan, and John Paul II, all in the same post. (If only our national political discourse acknowledged such complexity).

Indeed, God is “there,” or rather, everywhere (omnipresent, correct?) making judgements. I only object to people seeking or grasping political power who claim to rule in the name of God. There is inarguable justification for an omniscient God to make binding judgements upon us, whether we like it or not. Theoretically, we would in the end come to appreciate that his judgements are righteous and true. The problem is with people who, rather than shutting up and listening to him (as Abraham Lincoln seems to have done), want to run their mouth about what God would say if God were to speak for himself. When God wants to speak, he will do so himself, in whatever manner he chooses.

““When profits are private, while losses are socialised, the beneficiaries are encouraged to behave in ways that are no longer conducive to the common good.” This, and all else in the specific comment Clare said this, is quite apt. However, in any peaceful, orderly community, there are SOME common rules about what a man (or woman) may do with their own property. You can’t dump garbage over the fence onto your neighbor’s property. You can’t dump your effluent into common waters that will poison your neighbor’s water supply. In an economy where almost everyone needs to “get a job” in order to be self-supporting, the heartless, soul-less concentrations of capital can’t do whatever they please as a condition of employment. (There are other Papal pronouncements along that line).

We do need to move away from entitlements that aren’t paid for, and from dependence on public assistance. But it has to be done very carefully. There is nothing wrong in principle with disability benefits, unemployment compensation, or workers comp. They can be abused. Attempts to control abuse can be a cover for evasion of genuine responsibility. And I witnessed the results of the rash attempt to send single mothers to work when their youngest child was two years old: ten years later, the most unsocialized, self-centered bunch of kids ever hit the public schools and Boys and Girls clubs. Then people wanted to know why nobody was socializing the children. Duh… you sent mom to work when the kid was two.

#3 Comment By E-Ro On February 28, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

the article cited sums up my thoughts on why Ted Kennedy and Al Sharpton are the logical outcome of JFK and MLK, respectively, as opposed to this “they were really classical liberals/modern-day conservatives” revisionism. the only reason why JFK and MLK weren’t explicitly for abortion and affirmative action (actually, MLK was for that last one — see one of his late-’60s speeches) is because a) they hadn’t taken their liberal principles to their logical outcome yet and, more importantly, b) those weren’t national issues yet.

if both of them had lived i have little doubt that JFK would be a “personally opposed, BUT” Mario Cuomo pro-choicer and MLK would be an Equality of Results racial liberal. people on both sides gotta stop this ideological sorting, where every historical figure who’s remembered fondly is on Their Side. Glenn Beck is the worst offender with his “Dixiecrats were segregationists, therefore the Democratic Party is racist!” revisionism, although Jonah Goldberg who i enjoy reading has also made this mistake in making Nazism’s opportunistic socialist planks the core of their ideology, and reducing liberalism vs. conservatism to statism vs. anti-statism.

#4 Comment By E-Ro On February 28, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

to quickly add a point, another problem with this style of argument is that it’s essentially the Right trying to use the Left’s rhetoric against them. we’re not supposed to try and out-egalitarian the Left, because first that would make us to the left of the Left, and anyway it’s a game you can’t win. Rockefeller split-the-difference Republicanism only makes sense in certain situations.

#5 Comment By Carlo On February 28, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

Siarlys Jenkins:

I disagree with your three options, which boil down to the opposition “theocracy vs. costitutional republic” which is quite irrelevant to the present situation.

The real question is very different: the belief that a democracy can exist as a purely formal mechanism, independently of any cultural (and especially religious) foundations. The paradox is that democracy, tolerance and religious pluralism can only be supported on strong ethical and religious grounds. This is obvious in Lincoln’s example.

#6 Comment By savia On February 28, 2012 @ 6:03 pm


Jenkins does confuse theological arguments with politics and boils down everything to them vs us.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 28, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

We are enemies, Carlo and savia, pure and simple. What is most pure and dear to you is anathema to me, and vice versa. Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States of America was written by people trying to create the republic I grew up in, not the theocracy you are sincerely dedicated to. Carlo, isn’t there a nice little Catholic Republic somewhere in Italy you could go try out? We’re not buying it here. Oh, wait, San Marino was voting communist — I remember a news photo of the new red mayor marching in the traditional parade dressed in 14th century costume. Oh, well.

#8 Comment By William Dalton On February 29, 2012 @ 2:16 am

“When God wants to speak, he will do so himself, in whatever manner he chooses.”

Well, Siarlys, that is my point. God has spoken to u, is speaking to us. In the Bible. That is why God gave it to us. It is God’s Word.

The evidence for my assertion that the Bible is more reliably considered the Word of God than any other piece of religious literature, aside from the fact that all of Western Civilization was built from the minds of men and women schooled in from front to back, is this story. I know of no other work claiming to have sprung from the Mind of God that takes such joy in relating the human condition that causes it to be rejected. Indeed, God loved us while we were yet sinners.

None of the framers of the Constitution, none of the minds of the American Enlightenment at the time, from Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin to Thomas Paine, no matter how unorthodox their religious views, would have disputed the advisability, the wisdom, nay, the necessity, of instructing America’s young people in the Holy Scriptures, of having them know intimately its cosmology, its statutes, its history, its psaltery, its prophecies, its parables, its sermons, its epistles, and its gospels, whatever opinion they had of them, if America was to remain a free, a self-governing people. Leave it to those papal states, those Mohamedan ones, to keep their people in the dark, without Bibles they could read for themselves. This was to be the genius of America – a country where everyone could talk to God for themselves, without requiring anyone to mediate for them, because they each would have the Bible to begin them starting that conversation. And from that point they could start conversing intelligently, wisely, with each other about how they were to govern themselves in community.

Why is that Americans today, even those who profess to be Christians, who profess to believe in the Bible, have so much trouble with the logic that would compel us to do the same?

#9 Comment By savia On February 29, 2012 @ 2:19 am


I am not in favour of any theocracy. I find your distortions quite amusing actually.

Confusing an edict given to King Philip of France who wanted to rule the church, as a blueprint for take-over of all nations on one hand and on the other subscribing to French Monarchist prophesies, not recognized by a church that does not teach private revelation as an article of faith.

#10 Comment By savia On February 29, 2012 @ 2:28 am


I don’t disagree with your views on the word of God. I do disagree with your ideas that they are self-interpreting always, since the older churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) don’t subscribe to Sola Scripture because it’s a 16th century invention, not even found in the Bible.

If the early Christians were consistent on certain interpretations,and teachings, then I have more reason to believe them, than you personally.

#11 Comment By William Dalton On February 29, 2012 @ 11:36 am

Savia, I concede your point. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the hallmark of the Reformation, may not be as embedded in the origins of the Church as the Reformers believed. But that is the belief that they held, and that is the view that the founders of the United States held, even those who tended towards Deism and were skeptical of much that is in the Bible. The United States couldn’t have been formed without it. “No bishop, no king”, King Charles had said, which was the frame of mind that led to his beheading. He knew that once His people realized they didn’t need a Bishop to tell them what God was saying in the Bible, didn’t need a Bishop to tell them how to live their lives to please God, they would realize they didn’t need a king to tell them how they needed to live in order to live at peace with one another. Our Founders understood that for the American experiment in self-government to succeed, it would be necessary that every American, at least every American who would be enfranchised to vote and participate in the government of the states of the Union, be able to read and interpret the Bible, both to govern themselves in their homes and households and to govern themselves as a community and a nation. If they weren’t able to that, then Americans would have to pass over the responsibility of governance to some ruling class, as they had in Europe.

This is a principle that doesn’t just extend to Biblical interpretation. Why do you think so much of the Conservative movement, the Tea Party movement, the Ron Paul movement, is insistent upon a “strict” interpretation of the United State Constitution, an interpretation of its provisions, the commerce clause, the general welfare clause, the coinage clause, the due process clause that strips away decades of judicial interpretation that makes a mockery of the text, that tells Americans their government can do certain things, that they, the People, can’t do certain things, that is nowhere to be found in the actual text of the “Scripture”? Why are they sick and tired of judges who know the law says one thing, but they do another thing because they know the law is unwise and needs changing, but the People haven’t changed it, so they will do it for them. That is what American liberalism means today, those who know better than the American people how we should be governed, and so they say, as did King Charles, “Don’t bother to read it for yourself. We know it better than you do. Leave it to us.”

Take the Bible away from America’s school children, take away the basis of American law for them to read and struggle with and debate and eventually to understand for themselves, and you take away the tools they need to read and understand the Constitution and the Laws of the United States for themselves, and they will not be able to be a self-governing people, as our nation’s founders intended. Frankly I think we are there already, given the woeful state of what passes for Conservatism today. This is not about treating people of minority religious faiths the same as the majority, this is not about stopping the State from doing anything that might offend someone’s religious sensibilities. All of that is a smokescreen for taking away the ability of Americans to speak to God directly, in community as well as individually, and thereby render them unable to govern themselves and willing to accept governance by another, a “priestly” class of the 1%, who will tell them how they are to be governed.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 29, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

Between the errors of savia and Dalton, I step forward with the Truth, as Athanasius stepped forward between the Sabellians and the Arians. (Actually, I don’t agree with any of those three philosophies, nor the Monophysites, and I’m not sure why it matters. God is what God is, no matter what we think about what God might be).

Yes, the Bible is, or at least contains in unique profusion, the Word of God. No, it is not self-interpreting. This leaves two possibilities:

1) Some duly constituted church authority must explain to humble, ignorant me what it is all about, and I will take their word for it.

2) I must study it diligently, and try as best I can to understand what it means for my life and the community(ies) I am part of, always remembering that, just as the Pope doesn’t really know it all, so, my own conclusions may not be exactly right either, and should not be unduly pressed upon my neighbors.

It remains true, either way, that corporate worship and a frank sharing of whatever understanding we may have, between people of common faith, or even of somewhat different faiths, can help each and all of us come a little closer to the Truth that is entirely independent of what each of us understands.

#13 Comment By savia On February 29, 2012 @ 8:24 pm


I am in agreement with you on this issue, but The Bible cannot be compared to the constitution because it’s revelation. So one would need faith to subscribe to it.

In the same way, school children need to be taught to think objectively, because everything is now based on how people feel.

#14 Comment By savia On February 29, 2012 @ 8:52 pm


The Pope himself would agree with you.

Here’s how Catholic law theory works … there are a couple different kinds of law. The first one, is the eternal law, which are the principles of moral action as it exists in God unchangingly. Not even God can contradict this law. Because this eternal law, if I’m not mistaken, is part of God’s essence.

Now, as humans we can, through our natural reason, understand parts of the eternal law, but obviously not everything. The parts of the eternal law which we can understand is thus called the natural law.

Now, in political institutions, we can create our own law that, hopefully, is based in some way on this natural law. This kind of law, the ones that human institutions promulgate, is called human law.

Now, God can also reveal some of the eternal law to us that is impossible to discover it solely by natural reason. This kind of revealed law is called divine law.

#15 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 29, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

Everything savia said in her last two posts sounds fair, reasonable, and quite possibly true, but if the Pope agrees with me, why did he accept the position of Pope? He should be a congregational Christian evangelist. You left out any reference to infallibility while making ex cathedra pronouncements on matters of faith and doctrine.

Carlo, if we can agree on Lincoln as example, we should have nothing further to argue about.

#16 Comment By William Dalton On March 1, 2012 @ 1:09 am

There is a time and place to debate the perspicacity of Scripture, but even if you don’t believe in that doctrine you should realize the Nation’s Founders did, and it was the foundation of their belief that a people could be self-governing. Because they read the Scriptures with the belief they could interpret and understand it for themselves and govern their lives accordingly, they believed a people so educated (both in the Scriptures and how to read them) will be able to write and interpret a nation’s Constitution and laws for themselves, and not require an infallible King to do the job, any more than they needed a Bishop. I believe only a minority of Americans believe that any more. In every race for the Presidency, the mood of the country, at least as interpreted by our television commentariat, are more and more seeking for a Messiah figure to turn water into wine, heal the sick, multiply food to fill all stomachs, and defeat all our enemies, seen and unseen. And if they can be convinced they’ve found such a leader they are willing to give him dictatorial powers and don’t give a fig about the Constitution or the Bible.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 1, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

There is a time and a place to debate what the Nation’s Founders believed, or if, indeed, they all agreed on much of anything. I tend to believe that our Constitution emerged from the fact that the Framers DISAGREED on so much, yet found a framework for government that all could work with for the common good, with some known imperfections, resulting in a little unpleasantness 1861-1865, and at other times.

Certainly the New Englanders and the Virginians relied on the assumption that a virtuous and educated citizenry would guide the ship of state with some diligence and rational consideration, and certainly most placed one sort of faith or another in God.

History suggests to me that democracy is not so much a system in which The People rule, since most of the people, most of the time, really don’t want to be bothered, but a system in which more variables are in play than with a hereditary monarchy or bureaucratic dictatorship, and, to some extent, government has to stay within bounds that will not enrage the people.

#18 Comment By savia On March 2, 2012 @ 12:50 am


Something can be true, and still not be an ex-cathedra statement.

I am glad you are now open to learning, instead of just making empty slogans.

#19 Comment By savia On March 2, 2012 @ 12:54 am


I never said that people could not interpret the Bible. There is a difference between making an informed interpretation and just randomly quoting something.

There have been people put in charge to make sure that the Bible is not abused, the same way that judges do for the constitution.