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January 7th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Reversing JFK: Santorum’s bid to marry faith and politics

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories looking at the faith of the leading 2012 presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. We also profiled the faith journey of Herman Cain before he suspended his campaign.

By Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editors

(CNN) – It was election night in November 2006, and Rick Santorum had organized a private Catholic Mass in a room at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. The senator from Pennsylvania had just lost his re-election bid.

The Mass, held just before his concession speech, included a priest and Santorum’s close family and staff. Though the occasion was somber, the soon-to-be-ex-senator aimed for a celebratory mood, said Mark Rodgers, then a top Santorum aide.

“Life is if full of what can be perceived as disappointments or hardships,” Rodgers said, “but Scripture tells followers of Jesus that we approach those situations with joy because there’s ultimate redemption.”

Santorum’s younger brother, Dan, remembers that many attendees - including the senator’s children - were weeping over Santorum’s landslide defeat at the hands of Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

But not the senator.

“You’d think he would have been crushed,” says Dan Santorum. “But he wasn’t even bitter. He didn’t complain. He just said it was God’s plan.

“That’s when I knew he was going to run for president of the United States,” Dan continued. “Because I think that God had another plan for him.”

It’s unclear if Rick Santorum, whose strong finish in the Iowa caucuses has breathed new life into his presidential campaign, interpreted his Senate loss the same way.

Santorum concedes his Senate seat in 2006.

But the hotel Mass, and Santorum’s apparent placidity in the face of an overwhelming defeat, illustrate what confidants say is the key to understanding him as a person and politician: a devout Catholic faith that has deepened dramatically through political and personal battles.

“When I first met him he was an observant Catholic but a fairly privatized one,” says Rodgers, who ran Santorum’s first race for the U.S. House in 1990 and served as a key Santorum aide in Congress for 16 years.

“The journey I saw him on was a gradual awakening to the importance of faith at an operational level within a democracy, the idea that free people need to have a moral foundation.

“The journey was also personal - growing in faith and sharing it with others,” Rodgers says.

Many politicians have ideological concerns about issues like abortion or gay marriage, but “in Santorum’s case, it’s fundamentally religious,” says Richard Land, public policy chief at the Southern Baptist Convention. “That’s the genetic code of his life.”

It’s also the part that most inspires his political backers - among them the Iowa evangelicals who helped fuel his stunning Iowa finish, eight votes behind winner Mitt Romney - and most enrages critics, who take deep offense at Santorum’s views on divisive issues like homosexuality, which he once lumped together with bestiality in a discussion of legal rights.

“I think it’s fair to say that he’s sometimes harsh in the way he makes those arguments,” says Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush.

Indeed, even Santorum’s own party is seeing a faith-based split around his presidential campaign, with evangelicals who dominate the primaries in states like Iowa on one side and more establishment Republicans in states like New Hampshire on the other.

As he works to convince skeptical voters he has a real shot at winning the White House, Santorum’s religious faith has emerged as both his chief political asset and his biggest liability.

Kennedy's ‘sealed off’ wall

His Catholicism may have deepened as an adult, but Santorum also has deep Catholic roots.

“Three pictures hung in the home of my devoutly Catholic immigrant grandparents when I was a boy,” he said in a speech last year. “I remember them well: Jesus, Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy.”

Santorum attended Mass with his brother, sister and parents virtually every Sunday. “You basically had to be on your deathbed not to go to church,” says Dan Santorum.

Both parents worked in a VA hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania. As teenagers, Rick and Dan would push the wheelchairs of patients to Sunday Mass in the hospital’s interfaith chapel. Rick would serve the Mass as an altar boy, wheel patients up to receive Holy Communion, then help his brother wheel them back to their hospital rooms.

Other than that, it was a conventional American Catholic upbringing in the 1960s and ’70s: The Santorums said grace before meals, sent their kids to Catholic grade school and spent absolutely no time discussing how religion influenced their public policy views.

American Catholics at the time were living in the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech in which he insisted that neither his faith nor his church would have any influence on his presidency.

Santorum would spend his political life trying to reverse the effects of Kennedy’s pledge. He argued that Kennedy “sealed off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non-rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.”

During college and law school at Penn State, Santorum wasn’t especially observant; neither did his religious faith factor much into his political views.

After college he served as an aide to Doyle Corman, a moderate Republican state senator in Pennsylvania. Religion seldom came up.

“My husband and I are both pro-choice,” Corman’s wife, Becky, told The New York Times in 2006. “One of the interesting things about Rick is, the whole time he worked for us, we didn't know what his views were on that issue.”

Dan Santorum says a turning point in his brother’s faith life was his marriage to Karen Garver. They met in the 1980s while Karen was studying law at the University of Pittsburgh and Santorum was recruiting law students for the Pittsburgh firm where he worked.

“There was just a bond between them,” Dan says. “Part of that was that they shared their faith.”

That bond was on display last Tuesday during Santorum’s speech after the Iowa caucuses.

“C.S. Lewis said, ‘A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.’ My best friend, my life mate, who sings that song when I forget the words, is my wife, Karen,” Santorum said before embracing her in a long hug.

Santorum bows his head in prayer during an Iowa campaign rally in January.

Sometime after arriving in Washington following his 1990 House victory, Santorum began attending daily Mass before work.

The Rev. Eugene Hemrick, who frequently leads Mass at 130-year-old St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, says Santorum led Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback - who served with Santorum in Congress in the 1990s and 2000s - to the church.

“Santorum was always dressed up,” Hemrick remembers. “Brownback was in sweats a lot from running.”

The evangelical Brownback wound up converting to Catholicism, and the two were often joined in the pews by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“When you know these people are out there, you do a little more homework before you preach,” Hemrick said of his high-profile flock. “You try to make it a little more meaningful to them.”

Moral codes and absolutes

The 1990 GOP freshman class, a small group that managed to win in a poor year for Republicans nationally, took a confident line in airing grievances to congressional and party leaders.

Santorum was part of the freshman “Gang of Seven” that exposed the House banking scandal, and he kept up his penchant for bold, against-the-grain gambits after his election to the Senate as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution.

Soon he was taking aim at the overriding culture-war issue of our time: abortion.

Santorum helped lead the effort to impose the first federal restrictions on abortion that could survive court challenges since Roe. v. Wade - a ban on the procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.

Faith and politics may have been separate in Santorum’s childhood home and the homes of other American Catholics at the time, but by the 1990s abortion had become the symbol for the infusion of conservative faith into American politics. The issue forged a powerful political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

On the wall of his Senate office, Santorum kept a picture of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose evangelical faith stirred him to lead the campaign that ultimately ended the British slave trade in 1807.

The senator saw his campaign for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act as his “Wilberforcean effort,” says Rodgers, now a senior adviser to Santorum’s presidential campaign.

Santorum’s comfort with using his faith to shape his politics was partly a reflection of Catholic intellectuals he had met since arriving in the capital, including Richard John Neuhaus, a priest who edited the Catholic journal First Things, and George Wiegel, a theologian.

For Santorum, such figures and books by Catholic writers like St. Augustine instilled the sense that free societies need citizens who are governed by strong moral codes.

“How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when His moral code is flouted?” Santorum said in a ’90s-era speech at the Heritage Foundation. “To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes?”

For Santorum, legalized abortion represented the ultimate flouting of that code.

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed Congress in 1995, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it the following year. Santorum led a failed Senate effort to override the veto and helped revive the bill after the election of President George W. Bush, who signed it into law.

Such campaigns helped make Santorum a national hero to the anti-abortion movement and a bogeyman for abortion rights supporters.

“On the morning after the Iowa caucuses, there were millions of pro-life voters who woke up pinching themselves that one of their very own had emerged at the top rank of candidates, making sure it wasn’t a dream,” said the Southern Baptist Convention’s Land.

Around the time of the Clinton veto, Rick and Karen Santorum confronted a tragedy that added flesh-and-bone experience to their anti-abortion stance, which had up until then been intellectual and religious.

By that time, the Santorums had three children. While pregnant with her fourth, doctors told Karen her fetus had a fatal birth defect. In his 2005 book “It Takes a Family,” Santorum writes about Karen turning down the option to have an abortion.

“Karen and I couldn’t rationalize how we could treat this little human life at 20 weeks’ gestation in the womb any different than one 20 weeks old after birth,” Santorum writes. “So instead of giving our child a death sentence, we gave him a name: Gabriel Michael, after the two great archangels.”

The premature baby died two hours after birth. The next day, in a move that has widened the public opinion gap over Santorum, he and his wife took the dead body home so their children could spend time with it before burial.

“Gabriel died as a cherished member of our family,” Santorum writes in “It Takes a Family.”

Karen captured the episode in a 1998 book, “Letters to Gabriel,” describing to her late child the reaction of one of his sisters: “Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’”

For Santorum, who now has seven kids, holding Gabriel was a lesson about the fragility of human life.

Santorum, wife Karen, and his seven children.

“At that moment, eternity became reality,” Santorum writes. “After Gabriel, being a husband and father was different, being a legislator was different. I was different.”

Conservatism and the common good

Santorum has received a glut of media attention for how his religion shaped his culture-war stances, but allies say his faith has made him a compassionate conservative.

As a senator, Santorum was known for his work on poverty and combating HIV/AIDS. He says such efforts are rooted in the Catholic notion of working for the “common good.”

“Just as original sin is man’s inclination to try to walk alone without God,” Santorum writes in “It Takes a Family,” “individualism is man’s inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows.”

Santorum and those close to him say that impulse motivated his work on welfare reform during the mid-1990s.

Many conservatives “would have taken a fairly harsh view of welfare reform as a waste of taxpayer dollars,” says Rodgers. “Rick’s view was that publicly funded programs are justified when it’s for the least of these, which comes from Catholic social teaching.

“There’s a compassionate side of the Catholic faith that says you prioritize the poor in public policy, and there’s also the side that says work should be a component of that care, that not working strips you of your dignity.”

Santorum championed welfare-to-work programs in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that Clinton signed, as well as the idea of charitable choice, which gave states the ability to partner with religious institutions to address social problems like poverty and addiction.

Success on welfare reform provoked Santorum and a handful of other religious Republicans in Congress to begin discussing conservative solutions to poverty and other social problems that had mostly been the province of liberals.

Among the participants in those sessions was Gerson, who would join Bush in Texas as a speechwriter in the run-up to his 2000 presidential campaign and bring some of the ideas of the congressional group with him.

One was a plan to start a federal program to help level the playing field for religious groups applying for government money to address social problems.

For Santorum, employing faith groups in such a campaign was partially grounded in the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, which calls for addressing problems closest to where they are. In many troubled communities, the thinking goes, the strongest local institutions are churches, ministries and other religious organizations.

The notion of outsourcing government programs to religious institutions also appealed to Santorum’s beliefs about government’s limits.

“The problems currently afflicting us reflect an impoverishment of the soul more than the pocketbook,” Santorum has said, quoting conservative education scholar Chester Finn. “Government is simply not equipped to address problems of the soul.”

The idea for a government faith-based program had critics on the left and right, who feared government-backed religion and a welfare system for churches.

“A lot of people have a hard time getting Rick Santorum because they’re used to a debate between liberalism and complete free market approach and he’s not either of those things,” says Gerson, now a Washington Post columnist.

Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships via an executive order days after his 2001 inauguration. Santorum helped organize a conference to tell religious leaders from across the country about the new program.

“It was on that day that I decided to swallow my constitutional concerns about it,” says Richard Land, who attended the conference despite reservations.

“Seventy-five percent of the people attending the conference were either African-American or Hispanic,” Land says. “They wanted people who lived where the problems were making decisions about what should be done. They were in a lifeboat situation.”

Santorum was also a key Bush ally in creating the president's $15 billion global AIDS initiative, with the senator’s staff sometimes lending office space to rock singer Bono while he was lobbying for the program on Capitol Hill.

President Barack Obama has continued support for both the faith-based office and the global AIDS initiative. The programs are evidence that Santorum can be more than a culture warrior, and their staying power suggests he's gone a long way breaking through JFK’s sealed-off wall between religion and politics.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Politics • Rick Santorum

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  6. Yoshi

    I like Ron Paul and I tend to lean libertarian, but when Bret Baier foolwled up and asked him how he would get his sound monetary policy through a divided congress, he looked like a deer in the headlights. Libertarians have great ideas, but a lot of the ideas are cop-outs. The government should not be involved in marriage. Ok, it sounds great and I tend to agree. But we would have to change contract law for just about everything on the books. Sound monetary policy, let's do it! How? We gonna go to the gold standard and have another FDR-style executive order banning the hoarding of gold? Strip our military down to parade rest? History has taught us that this isn't a very good idea. Can we make defense cuts? Yeah, I no longer think we need an Air Force base on Thule Greenland. I'm sure there are other bases out there that are cold war relics. I would like to see Ron Paul as Secretary of Treasury though. He would destroy the Fed if the President let him.Reply

    August 1, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  7. Rachelle

    Paul disappointed you I thhogut you meant that you had higher expectations for him and his performance disappointed you, if you just don't like him and won't support him for personal reasons then there is not a lot to discuss. We can agree to disagree, I respect an honest opinion.I thhogut he pulled off a big win and every poll I have seen supported my opinion which is why Curt's post surprised me so much. I would like to say something to Curt and to retire05 and hard right, when you refer to those of us who support Ron Paul as Paulbots or with other derogatory names you are doing the same thing Liberals and RINO's do when they refer to members of the TEA party as teabaggers . Think about it. Now I can't speak for the rest of the Paulbots but as for myself I was probably serving in the Corps about the same time you were Curt , 1st MAW from 82-86, and his opinions concerning ALL of our current wars mirror my own. So you can both take your derogatory name calling and .anyway I'm still waiting for anyone to show me 1 poll that shows anyone besides Paul winning that debate.Reply

    July 31, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
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  13. Prometheus

    Don't worry my brothers and sisters. It will happen soon.

    One day, the plagues of ignorance perpetuated by religion will be little more than memory.

    One day, it will be the enlightened, and not the charlatans of the world, who will guide humanity into an era of peace and prosperity.

    One day, we will evolve. And through our evolution will come a peaceful, yet steadfast and stern, intolerance for bigotry.
    Religion will fade into history. It will be remembered as a crutch for the weak. Our children will be taught that it was a path to power for snake oil salesmen. The countless humans who fell victim to religion's false promises and immoral teachings will be pitied. And the victims of those victims will be mourned.

    In remembering religion's former prevalence, our children will feel embarrassed, ashamed, and angered. They will be angered at the injustice of so much hindered progress.

    So, fear not! my brothers and sisters. We shall prevail! Everyday we gain more knowledge. And no matter how many children religion's victims turn out (despite the warnings of over-population, famine, and pollution), we will educate them. The children of religion's victims will learn to honor the reason and logic their brains are capable of performing. They will naturally, although slowly, conclude that their parents were misled and misled them in turn. And they will refuse what their parents could not; to indoctrinate their own children. And they will refuse to indoctrinate the poor and hungry in third world nations. Instead, they will join us in promoting secular values worldwide. Together, we will lift all people out of poverty and despair and ignorance.

    Through advances in science we will minimize the pain and suffering of all living things and prosecute those who mean harm to our world.

    It will not be easy. It will not come quickly.

    But the beginning is coming.

    One day, it will happen soon.

    And Santorum... You can't stop the beat!

    March 29, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  14. debra gallehawk

    at least He knows what the Good Book says GOD said Thou shalt NOT kill
    Obamma on the other hand thinks thou shat use contraceptives freely aghhhh
    ill be glad when monkey ears is gone

    March 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • 1tonks

      funny how Santorum supports the capital punishment rule; killing just the same!!! Not all contraceptives kill, those with estrogen to NOT have the potential for killing eggs; do your homework. Santorum is a HYPOCRITE!!!

      March 26, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Dale Casador

      The concept of killing unborn human life is so repulsive, revolting and disgusting that we have to assign it the innocent term "abortion." I believe in abortion. This morning I aborted my coffee drinking. Later, I aborted work and went home. Soon I will abort my evening activities and got to bed.

      But I am apposed to killing innocent unborn human life. There is no question that "abortion" is the killing of human. Call it what you like an unborn child, a fetus, it is definitely a life, and not animal or plant life but human life. Can it be denied that the very basic reason people kill the unborn human life is because it is a human life?

      It's settled I'm voting for Santorum. Finally, a man who is moral, ethical, honest. The base in this country will hate him.

      March 27, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Nevis

      Is it morally wrong to kill an embryo, but immoral to kill a child, or an adult? Particularly if they are from another race, religion, or country? Seems like a double standard to me.

      March 29, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  15. Moby49

    Kennedy was right and Santorum is wrong. Religion and government don't mix.

    Never let a zealot of any kind in the office of president. American history is full of examples where the people made the right decision on that issue. I trust they will do so again.

    March 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • DICK RAMER

      RFK WAS THE TRUE FAITH MAN Along WITH MLK . THE YWERE DOERS OF THE WORD! THIS COUNTRY WOULD NOT BE IN THE SPIRITUAL SHAPE ITS IN IF LBJ WAS NOT ALLOW TO DO WHAT HE DID, ALONG WITH WATERGATE ,WHICH LBJ CREATED ALSO!!!!!!!!!!! NOW WE JUST KEEP FLOATING IN THE GREAT WORLD ORDER, WHERE WE ALL BECOME CATLICKS! BIDIN IS THE PHONY, MAKE YOUR COMPARISON THERE!

      March 24, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  16. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  17. reason

    Santorum wants to force rape victims to have their attacker's child.
    He also calls contraception dangerous and is ok with it being illegal.
    People like Santorum are why we need separation of church and state.

    March 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  18. Khudoyor

    Ok, you say you don't think the magnetic field has aninhytg to do with the recent happenings concerning the birds dropping to the ground or the 1000 s of fish dying and the airport changes, do you have a theory of your own as to why this would be happening, we have certainly been destroying our planet since god knows when, also, with holes in our ozone layer would gases in our atmosphere have something to do with these animals, I also had another question, with as much oil as we pull from the earth, it is heavier than water, yet they say they put the water elements back in the earth after taking the oil, doesn't this do aninhytg to our planet, what purpose does oil have in our planet to begin with, by sucking all these elements from our planet doesn't that throw something off balance and affect something, I'm not going to consider these dumb questions because no question is dumb if you don't know the answer, I would just like to get information from someone that may actually have an answer that isn't just talk, thank you

    March 4, 2012 at 1:51 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.