The Real Meaning of Santorum

Social conservatives are searching for a hero, and Rick Santorum’s antigay views have helped him claim the mantle of religious freedom fighter.

BY Lucas Grindley

April 09 2012 1:00 AM ET

[Photo Illustration by Scott McPherson]

 

Sincerity matters in politics. When politicians such as Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo step out in favor of marriage equality, or even when Republican state lawmakers buck their party to do the same, the leadership they demonstrate impresses voters on both sides. Or so goes the argument made privately by pro-marriage conservatives in triumphant lobbying efforts from New York to Washington State. What those lobbyists are less eager to point out is that while being pro-marriage is usually a net positive in general elections, it depends on the state. Certainly, it’s not helpful in Republican primaries.

A high-level Republican strategist with experience in big campaigns sees Santorum winning leadership points in the inverse. The self-proclaimed “courageous conservative” has a long and monotonous record on social issues, including an opposition to LGBT rights, that stands in contrast to Romney, about whose fuzzy political views rank-and-file voters remain unsure. In a race in search of the anti-Romney, the antigay views of Santorum are a sign of his authenticity and consistency. Now he’s built a campaign on that reputation, and it’s proved a solid foundation in Republican primaries—and instead of offending voters, it makes many see Santorum as truthful.

No one believes the race is being decided only on LGBT rights issues. But that is what’s so worrisome. Santorum’s views have not disqualified him as politically untenable. A look at his public statements shows that Santorum goes further than any Republican contender in campaigning against LGBT people. All of it fits under a banner of “religious freedom” that the rest of the party is now scrambling to pick up and claim as its own. 

The candidate’s wife, Karen Santorum, was asked in February by commentator Glenn Beck why she agreed to put their family under the microscope of a presidential campaign. The mother of seven described a “mission” that her husband is on “to make the culture a better culture, more pleasing to God.”

Santorum twice signed pledges that, if elected, he would ban same-sex marriage via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One of those pledges, from the Iowa group Family Leader, was deemed too extreme by Romney, who refused to sign.

While campaigning in South Carolina, Santorum bragged that he’s one of the original authors of the Federal Marriage Amendment. He’s also the only candidate to claim that amending the Constitution would retroactively invalidate marriages of same-sex couples. He’s the only one to say the amendment would simultaneously bar same-sex couples from adopting. (Although, he’s never said whether anything happens retroactively to separate children from their adoptive mothers and fathers.)

By contrast, when Romney explains why he opposes adoption by same-sex couples, he even avoids using the word “gay.” Twice during a debate in Arizona, Romney highlighted an incident in 2006 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he supported the Catholic Church even as it failed in attempts to get a legal exemption that would let it discriminate against same-sex couples who wanted to adopt.

Santorum’s explanation goes many steps beyond the bounds of the typical “religious freedom” arguments. During a campaign stop at the Community Christian Academy in Stuart, Fla., a mother asked why her gay son doesn’t deserve the same rights as Santorum. His answer divulged the religious doctrine underlying his belief system. It pops up even when explaining why he opposes what the right calls “Obamacare,” the president’s landmark health care law, which Santorum claims created government-issued rights that could one day just as easily be taken away.

“Everyone in America should have rights that are endowed to them by the Creator, those are unalienable rights. And your son, just like everyone else here, has those unalienable rights,” Santorum said, according to The Palm Beach Post, before explaining the difference between God-given rights and government-given rights.

“There are certain things that government does that gives people privileges in order to promote activity that are healthy for society and are best for society,” he said. “And those things we promote would give people advantages or benefits, government benefits, because we think that is healthy activity.”

In Rick Santorum’s view of the world, God has not given gay, bisexual, or transgender people any rights. Instead, Obama and the liberal Democrats have extended those rights, in violation of both God’s law and the religious beliefs of people like Santorum. In Santorum’s mind, Obama and the Democrats have played God. And that’s why they shouldn’t be reelected. It’s why they are to blame for the downfall of society.

Unlike Romney, Santorum has said he would seek to reinstate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. His reason, that gays serving openly is a kind of “social experimentation,” underscores the vantage point from which he views American culture.

“How close do you think we are to losing the republic?” Glenn Beck casually asked Karen Santorum during that same interview on his Internet television show.

“Oh, it’s such a concern,” she said. “I just really believe so strongly, and this is why we are making the sacrifice we are as a family…. Because I do believe if the president is elected again, I do believe we are going to lose our nation as we know it.”

This mix of faith and fear first earned attention for the Santorum campaign, which declined to comment for this article, in Iowa from a consolidation of evangelical voters who helped upset straw-poll winner Michele Bachmann. A sign of things to come was his first big endorsement, from Family Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats, the architect of a successful effort to unseat three state judges who had ruled in favor of marriage equality.

In the lead-up to the South Carolina primary, where former House speaker Newt Gingrich pulled off a surprise win, it was Santorum who was endorsed by a gathering of more than 150 major evangelical leaders. All of them traveled to Texas for a much-hyped confab where they gave speeches and endured several rounds of voting as they decided whether it would be Santorum, Gingrich, or Rick Perry who was their best chance of beating both Romney and Obama.

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