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 2:00 AM ET

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said afterward that Santorum “consistently articulated the issues that are of concern” to social conservatives and praised him for a “record of stability.” Evangelical Christians regularly say their faith is under attack, and so they prefer someone trusted to stick by them and fight.

The National Organization for Marriage’s former chairman, Maggie Gallagher, campaigned alongside Santorum in Ohio, where he lost so narrowly to Romney that much of the media declared it a political tie. Gallagher now runs a group whose purpose it is to argue that religious Americans need defending. NOM’s pledge, which Santorum and Romney both signed, commits these potential world leaders to launching a “presidential commission on religious liberty.” The commission would “investigate and document reports of Americans who have been harassed or threatened” for supporting marriage bans. The commission might even “propose new protections.”

If there is a war on religion, and even if there isn’t, then Santorum is one side’s pick to marshal a counteroffensive. An attack on Santorum is an attack on all Christians, or so Christian conservatives have spun it. Santorum has worn his battle scars proudly because each addition rallies a religious conservative base to his side. The glitter-bombings that followed Santorum before he got his Secret Service detail were a visual representation of LGBT disapproval, but they also fed a narrative that antigay leaders see as helpful.

“The left, which thought it had buried Santorum years ago, is going after him with a hatred unmatched,” said Gallagher in her endorsement. “They hate him with that special ire reserved for a man’s virtues, not his vices.”

Coincidence or not, the trio of wins that propelled Santorum back into the media spotlight came moments after a great victory for LGBT rights made national headlines. As the candidate and his supporters celebrated in Minnesota, so did gays and lesbians at rallies all over California in reaction to a federal appeals court ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. News reports noted that Washington, Maryland, and New Jersey were all on the verge on votes to legalize same-sex marriage. It wasn’t long before Santorum headed to Washington State, arriving the very same day marriage equality was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“Thank you for standing strong with us and for the values that made this country great,” he said to a crowd in Tacoma, shouting over a chorus of protesters angry that he was marring what was supposed to be a momentous day for LGBT rights. “I think it’s really important for you to understand what this radical element represents,” he said of the protesters, “because what they represent is true intolerance.”

The crowd roared in response. And then Santorum broadened the picture while painting himself and his followers as the victim.

“That’s what the Ninth Circuit said when they handed down the decision striking down Proposition 8. What they said was that anybody who disagreed with them were irrational, and that the only reason they could possibly disagree was if they were a hater or a bigot. I got to tell you, I don’t agree with these people, but I respect them. I respect their opportunity to be able to have a different point of view. And I don’t think that they’re a hater or a bigot because they disagree with me.”

Even if LGBT rights activists don’t see the fight as a war on religion, they do have ballot fights on their hands in Maine, North Carolina, and Minnesota. And opponents want to add repeals of marriage equality laws to general election ballots in Washington and Maryland. LGBT rights wins won’t come from attacks on Santorum or his values, though. Not if you ask Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. Carlbom is fighting for Minnesota to be the second state to defeat an antigay constitutional amendment.

“We are the ones who are defining this as a religious, moral issue for voters,” he says of the pro-LGBT strategy in Minnesota. In March, Edina Community Lutheran Church became the 40th faith-based partner to join the coalition. Carlbom points to his stable of religious supporters as his own argument for religious freedom. “Our goal isn’t to win them over,” he says of Santorum supporters. “Our goal is making sure the people of Minnesota know that the way mainline denominations are defining marriage is love and commitment.”

Religious leaders are credited almost everywhere with making a difference in fights for marriage. HRC praised the testimony of clergy, for example, as instrumental in passing marriage equality in Maryland. Carlbom points out that in the Minnesota primary, Santorum won 21,000 votes in a state with millions of voters. He and other activists, while alarmed that anyone still sides with a staunchly antigay candidate, are confident in the fairness of the larger pool of Americans.

If Santorum were to be nominated atop the GOP ticket or as vice president, his presence would continue shifting debate into social issues. Some Republicans worry that it distracts from their message on the economy and jobs, not only at the presidential level but also in down-ballot races.
Solmonese says Santorum’s “influence over the race to date has already done significant damage.” Romney is a calculating politician who sees what Santorum accomplished and has become more “mindful,” Solmonese says, of Santorum’s issues and voters, perhaps taking a harder line than he would have if allowed to focus only on wooing independents.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director for the gay conservative group GOProud, says a Santorum nomination would be “disastrous” for his party. “If he is the nominee,” LaSalvia predicts with alarm, “the Obama-Santorum outcome will make Reagan-Mondale look like a squeaker.” Walter Mondale, the former Democratic vice president, was a strong liberal who overcame a close primary fight only to lose 49 of 50 states in the 1984 election. For LaSalvia, who is a loyal Republican and supports Romney, it’s almost heretical to compare a Republican to a left-winger such as Mondale. But he doesn’t mince words except when asked whether GOProud could endorse a ticket that included Santorum’s name. “It would be a referendum,” he says, “on the most outdated and wrong beliefs of some conservatives.”

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