Santorum Surge or Santorum Sputter?

Rick Santorum, via Gage Skidmore and Creative Commons.

Rick Santorum was riding high in Iowa earlier this month but his presidential campaign now seems to be faltering. I wrote about Santorum as a lightning rod in the cultural wars for the Globe and Mail in an article that can be read here. Below is a slightly amended and expanded version of the same piece:

Santorum’s Surge by Jeet Heer

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is nobody’s idea of a sexy politician. With his earnest theological lectures and propensity for grandpa-like sweater-vests that even Stephen Harper would find too dowdy, he’s the opposite of a Kennedy, a Trudeau, an Obama or a Palin.

“I may not be the guy that the girls are initially attracted to when they walk into the dance hall,” Mr. Santorum himself admits. “But ultimately, once you get to know all the folks, I’m the one you want to take home to Mom.”

Yet the truth is that, whether you’re with him or against him, Mr. Santorum’s candidacy is all about sex. From birth control to abortion to same-sex marriage, matters of the heart and loins are the main planks in his conservative-culture-warrior platform. And that seduced enough of the Republican base to have brought him within eight votes of victory in this week’s Iowa primary.

Where less-virile candidates rail against abortion, Mr. Santorum denounces even birth control. “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country,” he told an interviewer last October. “Many of the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception is okay.’ It’s not okay. It’s a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

He has also used remarkably pungent terms to attack same-sex marriage, comparing it in 2003 to “man-on-child” or “man-on-dog” sex. Those remarks earned the ire of gay-rights activists – including, with regrettable consequences for Mr. Santorum, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage.

To give the then-senator from Pennsylvania a lesson in the dangers of abusive language, the Seattle-based but nationally syndicated columnist asked his readers to come up with alternative, offensive meanings for “santorum.”  If you google Santorum, one of the top results will take you to the winning entry: “Santorum 1. The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex. 2. Senator Rick Santorum.”

The neologism quickly took off, becoming one of the most successful digital pranks of the decade, and raising this novel conundrum: Can a man become president if his last name is not safe for schoolchildren to Google? It’s been suggested that Mr. Santorum’s entire presidential campaign is motivated in part by a desire to wipe clean, as it were, Mr. Savage’s smear.  The hope is that  when Mr. Santorum is sworn in as commander-in-chief, the x-rated definition of Santorum will become less popular on google and be replaced by more wholesome websites.

Now, because of Mr. Savage, it is almost impossible to write about Mr. Santorum without double entendres, whether deliberate or accidental. On National Public Radio, a reporter referred to the “come-from-behind candidate” while the Christian Broadcasting Network proclaimed, “Santorum surging to the top.” Fox News made the unfortunate decision to use the colour brown to highlight areas in Iowa where Mr. Santorum was most successful.

Mr. Santorum repeatedly has complained about the savaging of his good name, arguing that it is an affront to civility. “There are foul people out there who do horrible things,” he told an interviewer in 2011. Weekly Standard writer John McCormack has complained that the Santorum prank is an affront to democratic civility. The obvious retort is that neither Santorum nor the Weekly Standard have a history of civility when dealing with gays.

A former altar boy, Mr. Santorum is often portrayed as an avatar of Catholic conservatism. Yet it’s only on “family values” issues that he follows Vatican dictates. As a foreign-policy hawk, an opponent of the welfare state, a believer in the death penalty, an adversary of immigrant rights, a foe of environmentalism and a climate-change denier, he is well outside the mainstream of Catholic social thought as articulated by both the Vatican and the American church.

Or to put it another way, cultural conservatives like Santorum have redefined and narrowed Catholic social thought so that only sexual issues are important. Religion, for Santorum, is only relevant when it deals with human genitals; in every other field of human interest, capitalism and nationalism are free to dominate.

In fact, his biggest fans are among evangelical Protestants, who made up the bulk of his Iowa supporters. In past decades, conservative Protestants were usually pro-contraception (and often anti-Catholic), even when they opposed abortion. This has been changing: Increasingly, evangelical Christians are starting to echo their Catholic brethren in arguing that birth control is the first step in the moral regression that leads to abortion.

One significant glue in this alliance is the “personhood” movement, supported by Catholics and Protestants alike, which seeks to bestow legal rights to fetuses, a move that would make illegal not just abortion but some forms of a birth control such as the intrauterine device.

Will the Santorum surge soon be, er, spreading across the United States? Even some conservatives are skeptical, believing that Mr. Santorum’s holy war against sexual freedom goes too far.

As David Frum dryly noted on Twitter, birth control is “pretty popular outside Iowa.” On the National Review website, Ramesh Ponnuru, himself a conservative Catholic, confessed that “there is no significant constituency in the GOP that wants a president to make the case against contraception.” Yet perhaps these pundits underestimate the appeal of Mr. Santorum’s brand of sexual politics.

With the lingering recession and the European Union teetering, the 2012 election was supposed to be all about the economy. Divisive social issues were to be put on the back burner. But Mr. Santorum has shown that even in hard times, it’s still easier to spark some voters’ imaginations by talking about bedroom controversies rather than boardroom ones.

2 thoughts on “Santorum Surge or Santorum Sputter?

  1. I have to disagree with you about, “A former altar boy, Mr. Santorum is often portrayed as an avatar of Catholic conservatism. Yet it’s only on “family values” issues that he follows Vatican dictates. As a foreign-policy hawk, an opponent of the welfare state, a believer in the death penalty, an adversary of immigrant rights, a foe of environmentalism and a climate-change denier, he is well outside the mainstream of Catholic social thought as articulated by both the Vatican and the American church.”

    I would say there is more than one way to skin a cat, meaning for instance the welfare state is not really good for the people. It creates an environment that perpetuates dependency and lowers standards of living.

    The family unit rightly should also be a national issue as if you fix these “sex” issues – you will see poor people be able to lift themselves out of the mire of government support and do better for themselves.

    So there is more than one way to accomplish the same goals is my point. If you help people not by dependency but rather through removing the shackles that bound them – you will accomplish the same social justice goals the church is espousing.

  2. Dear John W. Zimmer,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll simply note that the position you’ve articulated can be criticized on both doctrinal grounds and empirically. On doctrinal grounds, church teaching as articulated over the last century has been much closer to supporting a robust welfare state than it is to laissez-faire economics. On empirical grounds we know that those nations which have most successfully rolled back the welfare state (the United States under Reagan and his successors, the UK under Thatcher and her successors) have a much lower level of social mobility than those nations that retain a strong welfare state (particularly the northern European social democracies): see here for some statistics: http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2010/01/11/195739/social-mobility-in-america/ — what this means is that if you are poor in America your family is much more likely to remain poor than if you are poor in Norway or Denmark. That’s a fact that Christians need to think about when they make policies decisions.

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