Rick Santorum’s phony theology

The Republican presidential contender says he’s a devout Catholic, but his positions often contradict his religion.

Rick Santorum
Santorum has made radical statements before taking them back [GALLO/GETTY]

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

– Matthew 7:3-5

San Pedro, CA – Over the weekend, GOP presidential frontrunner Rick Santorum accused President Obama of holding to a “phony theology”. Here’s ABC News:

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Rick Santorum seemed to question President Obama’s Christian values today when speaking about the president to a tea party group.

The “president’s agenda” is “not about you”, he said. “It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job.

It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology,” Santorum said to applause from the crowd. “Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.”

The former Pennsylvania senator has said he believes Obama is a Christian, and a statement from the campaign stresses that as well, adding that Santorum was talking not about the president’s religion, but political ideology.

Of course Santorum “clarified” afterwards. Santorum has a pattern of making extreme statements and then taking them back under unexpected pressure. But pundits have rightly noted that these statements are a source of Santorum’s strength, a reflection of what he really believes, and a sign of his authenticity – as opposed to Mitt Romney’s inability to say anything that resonates as a firm conviction.

But Santorum’s “clarification” was actually just the opposite – an obfuscation of his original, crystal-clear message. There is, in fact, a long history of religious-right arguments that “secular humanism” is itself a religion, or that environmentalists are all pagans – despite the fact that the Bible clearly indicates a human responsibility to care for God’s creation – a responsibility that even evangelicals clearly realise.

 Santorum hot on Romney’s heels

For example, it’s been almost 20 years since the founding of the Evangelical Environmental Network in 1993. EEN’s website says it “is grounded in the Bible’s teaching on the responsibility of God’s people to ‘tend the garden'”. Indeed, the religious right has become much more actively anti-environmental in response to the EEN and other environmentally minded evangelicals, drawing much closer to corporate anti-environmentalists than ever before over the past decade. This is the argument Santorum was advancing, the argument he believes in, but is unwilling to defend when he’s not talking to an audience that’s already on his side.

But what about Santorum’s own theology? Is he accusing Obama of having a mote in his eye, while ignoring the beam in his own? Let’s consider the evidence. I think you’ll find it overwhelming.

First up, the Ten Commandments. Santorum, like the entire religious right, has a big problem with this one:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
– Exodus 20:16

From where I sit, Santorum has a very hard time mentioning Obama’s name without violating this commandment. But as the above example shows, he’s very practiced at wriggling out of things. He doesn’t lie about Obama, his defenders claim, he’s been misinterpreted.

There’s one big problem with this defence: “not bearing false witness” is more than just not lying. It’s a matter of the spirit – not the letter – of the law. And the mere fact that Santorum keeps saying derogatory things about Obama – which he then has to take back and “clarify” – is in itself clear evidence of bearing false witness within his heart, whatever his lips may later do to deceive about his initial deception.

But let’s not depend on arguably disputable cases, even though they get to the spiritual heart of the matter. Let’s make things crystal-clear, so that even a Pharisee can understand. Here’s Santorum, from a speech at Hope College in Holland, Michigan on Monday:

“When you have the president of the United States referring to the freedom of religion and you have the secretary of state referring to the freedom of religion, not as the freedom of religion but the freedom of worship, you should get very nervous, very nervous.”

“Because there’s a lot of tyrants around the world who will talk about freedom of worship, but they won’t talk about freedom of religion. Freedom of worship is what you do within the four walls of the church. Freedom of religion is what you do outside the four walls of the church. What the president is now seeming to mould, in the image of other elitists who think that they know best, is to limit the role of faith in the public square and your role to live that faith out in your public and private lives.”

Santorum’s claim was subject to withering scrutiny in a blog post: “Watch Rick Santorum Violate the Ninth Commandment!”, which traced the origins of Santorum’s argument back to a February 22, 2010, article in the influential Catholic Right journal, First Things. That article argued:

“Recently, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been caught using the phrase ‘freedom of worship’ in prominent speeches, rather than the ‘freedom of religion’ the president called for in Cairo.

“If the swap-out occurred only once or twice, one might appropriately conclude it was merely a rhetorical accident. However, both the president and his secretary of state have now replaced ‘freedom of religion’ with ‘freedom of worship’ too many times to seem inadvertent.”

This is the origin of Santorum’s claim that Obama is secretly trying to destroy religious freedom. However, the blog post points out that the basic underlying factual claim simply isn’t true:

“Well, that would be worrisome – if true. But when we search the White House website for ‘freedom of worship’, we only get five hits – four from 2009, and one from 2011. And when we search instead for ‘freedom of religion’, we get forty-three hits – including twenty from 2011, and three so far this year.”

And it goes on to provide a couple of examples, which not only use the phrase that Santorum claims has been abandoned, but use it specifically to address the issue of religious oppression abroad that supposedly so worries him:

“Like this one, from January 6: ‘As events in Egypt and elsewhere have illustrated, and as history repeatedly reminds us, freedom of religion, the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive and thriving society.’

“Or this one, from ten days ago: ‘Part of our goal with respect to this visit is for Vice President Xi to understand the issues that are important to us, and that includes issues like the situation in Tibet, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and so on.'”

The blog post also notes that Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, used the term “freedom of worship” more often than Obama does, 27 times.

In short, what Santorum has done is to simply pick up right-wing anti-Obama gossip, and mindlessly repeat it, without any concern about whether it’s true or not. This is precisely the opposite of what the ninth commandment intends. It is also a very good model of all the other right-wing slanders against Obama that Santorum has repeated. It’s just sufficiently specific enough to be unambiguously refuted.

Until the ranks of the GOP primary field were thinned dramatically, Rick Santorum was a third-tier candidate, telling third-tier lies, while no one paid any attention to him. He blossomed only because all the more prominent alternatives had withered under scrutiny – a scrutiny that he so far has managed to avoid. As this carefully scrutinised example shows, Santorum richly deserved to be a two per cent, third-tier candidate, because he’s little more than a bottom-feeding rumour-monger who violates the ninth commandment as casually as some folks chew gum.

But can that really be? Isn’t Santorum a very religious man? Isn’t his deep faith a matter of public record? Isn’t it constantly on display? Well, er, yes, it is. And that’s precisely the problem:

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
– Matthew 6:5-6

The theme of inward faithfulness and authenticity versus public preening and hypocrisy runs throughout the Bible. This is just one passage that makes the contrast between outward show and inward faithfulness particularly clear. And it is a passage that is absolutely devastating to the religious right as a whole, because it makes a mockery of all their pretended righteousness. Santorum is in no way exceptional. To the contrary, he is an entirely ordinary example of the profound hypocrisy that is the very foundation of the United States’ religious right. You don’t need any sort of complicated interpretive theory. All you need to do is re-read the brief passage above. The words of the Bible speak for themselves. And these are the ones who constantly criticise the religious faith of others?  Remember that other passage, the one about motes and beams?

There are many more Bible passages we might want to consider, and compare with how Santorum conducts himself. But Santorum’s supposed theology is more specific than that. He’s not only a Christian generally, but specifically a Catholic. So how does he shape up in terms of Catholicism?

Santorum sided with and echoed the Bush administration’s efforts to utterly subvert the just war framework.”

Santorum versus Catholic just war doctrine’

One of the most consequential votes Santorum ever cast in the Senate was to authorise military force against Iraq. But Catholic just war doctrine is opposed to war in all but a very narrow set of circumstances, and only as a last resort. In November 2002, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement reaffirming the just war doctrine and specifically counselling against the ways in which the Bush administration was attempting to erode or subvert that doctrine. Two clauses in particular are worth noting:

Just cause. The Catechism of the Catholic Church limits just cause to cases in which “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain.” (#2309) We are deeply concerned about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on just cause to include preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Consistent with the proscriptions contained in international law, a distinction should be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government’s existence.

Legitimate authority. In our judgment, decisions concerning possible war in Iraq require compliance with US constitutional imperatives, broad consensus within our nation, and some form of international sanction. That is why the action by Congress and the UN Security Council are important. As the Holy See has indicated, if recourse to force were deemed necessary, this should take place within the framework of the United Nations after considering the consequences for Iraqi civilians, and regional and global stability.

(Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, 9/10/02)

Rather than echoing this defence of these deeply established Catholic principles, Santorum sided with and echoed the Bush administration’s efforts to utterly subvert the just war framework. He supported their embrace of preventative war, supported their purpose of regime change, supported the authorisation of armed force – without further requiring a declaration of war – and he supported the Bush administration’s evasion of the UN Security Council vote, which the US could not have won and which the Catholic bishops clearly indicate was morally necessary from a Catholic standpoint.

Two months later, on January 13, 2003, Pope John Paul II spoke out against the coming war in his annual “State of the World” address. But the Bush administration ignored that as well, and Santorum continued to support them in ignoring the Pope. Santorum never has been asked to explain his version of just war doctrine, and how he derives such a different version of it without relying on a phony theology. This would be an excellent question for him to be asked the next time he criticises President Obama, particularly when it comes to Obama’s insufficient bloodlust.

Santorum versus Catholic social teachings

It would be a grave mistake to think that Santorum’s break with the Catholic Church over matters of war and peace is just an isolated incident. In fact, Santorum is deeply at odds with a wide range of Catholic social thought, as was explained by John Gehring, Senior Writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator of Faith in Public Life Action in a January 5 Huffington Post article: “The Catholic Case Against Rick Santorum“. Before turning to the specifically social issues, I should note that Gehring also covers war and torture together. With regard to the latter, he writes:

“When it comes to torture, which the Church calls an ‘intrinsic evil’, Santorum is a proud proponent. The Catholic bishops describe the barbaric practice as an assault on the dignity of human life. ‘The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism,’ they wrote in Faithful Citizenship, a political responsibility statement released before every presidential election. But Santorum eagerly endorsed ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques during the first Republican primary debate.”

Hence, contrary to all of Santorum’s railing against secular elites, and the secular media, he’s extremely fortunate that campaign commentators are not much more familiar with Catholic doctrine than they are. If they were, he would never stand a chance.

Gehring has more to say on other issues.

Immigration: On some topics, Santorum seems ignorant and uninterested in what Catholic doctrine has to say about matters of public morality and policy. But on immigration, the picture Gehring portrays is that of prideful defiance. “Catholic bishops, priests and women religious have been at the forefront of the fight for comprehensive immigration reform,” he writes, but “Santorum has publicly challenged the Catholic bishops on this issue, telling the Des Moines Register: ‘If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested, we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more, we’d be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently.'” Obama, in contrast, sides with the bishops on this one. Whose theology is phony, now?

Poverty and inequality: On basic economic issues, Santorum seems more ignorant than defiant, so far as Catholic teachings are concerned. Gehring notes: “Pope Benedict XVI has decried the ‘scandal of glaring inequalities’ between rich and poor, and Catholic social teaching supports a more just distribution of wealth”. But, “Santorum, in contrast, told the Des Moines Register: ‘I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality.'” And, Gehring adds: “When questioned about how his economic views clash with the Catholic demand for a ‘preferential option for the poor’ in public policy, Santorum was completely unfamiliar with this bedrock Church teaching.”

Workers’ rights: Santorum is even more sharply at odds with the Church when the subject turns specifically to labour. As Gehring points out: “The Catholic Church has defended the vital role of unions since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that puts the dignity of work and labour rights at the centre of Catholic social teaching.” What’s more: “The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly states that workers have a right to ‘assemble and form associations’ and that unions are ‘a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life’.” But for Santorum, the choice of who to stand with between the Catholic Church and the post-2010 Tea Party is a no-brainer, as Gehring notes that Santorum “has argued that all public sector unions should be abolished”.

Climate change and the environment: I’ve already pointed out that there’s an evangelical environmental movement, but the same is true for virtually every other denomination as well, and Catholics are no exception. First, Gehring calls attention to the Vatican leadership. “Pope Benedict XVI, who has been dubbed the ‘Green Pope’ for his attention to environmental justice and climate change, recently urged world leaders meeting for climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to ‘reach agreement on a responsible, credible response’ to the ‘disturbing’ effects of climate change.” He then turns his attention to US Catholicism, “Catholic dioceses across the country have encouraged Catholics to limit their carbon footprint, and national advocacy organisations like the Catholic Climate Covenant work to educate Catholics about their faith’s teachings on environmental stewardship.” But, in contrast, he notes: “Santorum must not be listening. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, he described the fact that climate change is caused by humans as ‘patently absurd’ and a ‘beautifully concocted scheme’.”

As a journalist, I can’t help but ask the obvious question: Does Santorum think that Pope Benedict is a fool or a knave? A fool to belief such a patent absurdity, or a knave to foist it off on others? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind implying either alternative about Obama. But how does he square off against the Pope? I’d really like to know.

Ayn Rand Christianity

Rick Santorum feels no obligation to set the record straight when someone speaks up at one of his meetings and slanders the president.”

On Monday, my old blogmate from Open Left, Mike Lux, asked: “What Bible is Santorum Reading?” Reflecting on Santorum’s “phony theology” comment, he wondered if Santorum and other conservatives “are just reading a different Bible entirely than the one I read”. Indeed, considering all the evidence, he argued:

“I will go so far as to say that the modern conservative faith is the direct opposite of what the Judeo-Christian Bible teaches: modern conservatives argue that everyone should take what they want and devil take the hindmost, that we are all on our own, and that if you are rich it means that a Darwinian selection process allowed you to succeed, and that you owe nothing to anyone else. Modern conservatives are far more faithful to Ayn Rand, who openly rejected Christianity because of its values of helping the poor and caring for others. Give her credit for one thing: at least she was honest.”

Ah yes. Honesty. Back to that, again.

Unlike John McCain in 2008, Rick Santorum feels no obligation to set the record straight when someone speaks up at one of his meetings and slanders the president – a point that CNN’s John King asked about recently, after a woman at a Florida town hall said: “I never refer to Obama as ‘president’ because legally he is not the president. He constantly says that our Constitution is passe and he totally ignores it; as you know he does what he darn well pleases. He is an avowed Muslim.”

Santorum’s response to this vomiting of lies? “I’m doing my best to try to get him out of the government, right? I am. And you’re right about how he uniformly ignores the Constitution.”

Not only does Santorum fail to set the record straight – unlike McCain, he’s far too much of a moral coward to do that – he actually supports the woman’s lying, he agrees with her, even though he’s careful not to specifically echo her most incendiary lies.

Here’s a little lesson in theology, Mr Santorum, not to mention common sense: You don’t have to lie to bear false witness. Just slap a liar on the back and say, “Good job.” Even tacit approval makes the lie your own. And when you actually encourage the liar…

I don’t know if the priests ever taught you this, Rick. But my mother certainly did. She knew her theology. And she knew her phonies, too.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg