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My Take: Why should Santorum decide who's a real Christian?
February 20th, 2012
01:03 PM ET

My Take: Why should Santorum decide who's a real Christian?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

There has been much chatter in recent days about the reinjection of religious matters into the presidential campaign, with a focus on the increasingly bitter debate over Catholics and contraception. But Rick Santorum has just opened up a new and dangerous front in the culture wars.

We are now being asked to debate which of the Christians running for president is really a Christian. I am referring here not to questions about Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism according to many evangelicals is not the right theological stuff, but to questions about President Barack Obama.

In the past, the strategy on the right was to intimate that Obama was a closet Muslim (he is not.) It was too crass even for our crassest politicians to come out and utter this falsehood, so, when asked about Obama’s faith, the strategy was to say, “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.”

In fact, that is precisely what Santorum said in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.

This “Obama is a Muslim, maybe” strategy was also on display in Lady Lake, Florida, in January when a woman in the audience called Obama an “avowed Muslim” and Santorum let her remarks pass unchallenged.

Santorum took things a step further on Saturday, however, when he blasted the president for adhering to a "phony theology." The context, oddly enough, was a discussion of oil drilling technology, namely “fracking.”

In an effort to explain why Obama was in his view dragging his heels on this new technology, Santorum said the president was not motivated by “quality of life” issues. “It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology,” he said. “Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology. But no less a theology.”

On Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," Santorum tried to shift the conversation from Obama's faith to the "phony ideal" of "radical environmentalists." "I accept the fact that the president's a Christian," he said,  even as he insisted on questioning Obama's "worldview."

Later on Sunday, at a suburban Atlanta megachurch, he seemed to compare Obama to Hitler while comparing Americans' complacency about Obama today to complacency about the Germans during World War II. "Remember, the greatest generation for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was in darkness," he said. "We think . . . 'This will be okay. I mean, yeah, maybe he's not the best guy after a while. after a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who's not so good of a guy after all."

I will leave it to theologians to explain to me what the Bible says about hydraulic fracturing, to lexicographers to parse the fine distinctions between phony "theology" and a phony "worldview," and to historians (or 5th graders) to distinguish between our president and Germany's Fuhrer, but my point is this: Santorum has crossed a line.

In 2008, he crossed a similar line, but he had not yet announced his run for president, so his remarks went largely unnoticed. In remarks at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, however, he said that our culture war actually a “spiritual war” and that “Satan” was on the march in America.

This “Prince of Lies,” as Santorum called him, was destroying universities, the government and popular culture. But he had also infiltrated mainline Protestantism, which in Santorum's view had ceased to live up to the name of “Christian.” “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles. It is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it," Santorum said.

All this language about the “phony theology” of the president and mainline Protestants is in my view a misguided response to the decision of the Democrats to get right with God after Senator John Kerry’s loss to President Bush in the 2004 election.

Up to and during that election, Republicans were able to cloak themselves in the mantle of right religion and tar the Democrats as the party of the secular left. After 2004, however, the Democrats spoke increasingly about God and the Bible, linking their public policies to longstanding Christian commitments to justice and the poor.

Today Republicans continue to attack Democrats for adhering to the religion of “none of the above,” but such charges are increasingly implausible. So the new charge is not that the Democrats are godless. It is that they are the wrong kind of Christians.

There is considerable debate about what the founders meant when they preserved religious liberty and disestablished religion in the First Amendment. About these meanings (and in my view they were multiple) reasonable people can disagree.

It is also worth debating how far the founders thought religious diversity might go in their new nation. There was some conversation about Muslims and Jews during debates over Constitution's exclusion of any religious test for federal office. Some questioned whether Americans really wanted to allow non-Christians to be president.

There is no debating, however, the fact that the founders insisted on amity among the Christian denominations. In fact, they saw such amity as essential to peace and prosperity in their new republic.

Now Rick Santorum is turning the tables on those 19th century bigots who excommunicated Catholics from the community of the Christian faith. Evangelicals apparently pass muster with him, but not liberal Protestants, who according to Saint Santorum are less Christian than he.

There are doubtless theological discussions to be had here. In fact, Americans have been having them since the Reformation. And if Santorum wants to address a Catholic catechism class about whether Protestants are going to heaven, more power to him.

I also have no problem with Santorum citing chapter and verse from a papal encyclical to explain why he thinks "artificial birth control" is “harmful to women” and "harmful to our society" (as he said in 2006).  You want to give Catholic reasons for your public policies? Knock yourself out. Just don’t expect non-Catholics to agree with them (or many Catholics, for that matter).

Santorum also has every right to argue (as he has repeatedly) that church and state have never been separated in the United States the way some strict separationists would like them to be. But there must be some distinction between what happens in a sermon on Sunday morning and what happens in a presidential debate.

Conservatives in the United States have long spoken on behalf of community values. One of the most venerable values in American public life is religious pluralism.

This tradition of agreeing to disagree in the public square about such matters as the Trinity does not dictate that you check your faith at the door. It does not mandate that we all become moral relativists or theological compromisers. It does insist, however, that we refrain from reducing God to a wedge - which is to say a tool –for our own partisan politics. As any real conservative will recognize, that is not our tradition.

When I look at the shape of politics in this country, I too see that it is a shambles. And when I look at Rick Santorum's recent remarks I see one reason why.

My question for the former Senator from Pennsylvania is not whether he adheres to the right kind of Christianity. My question is whether there is anything he will not say in order to become president. Have you, sir, no sense of decency?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Culture wars • My Take • Politics • Protestant • Rick Santorum • Uncategorized • United States

soundoff (796 Responses)
  1. Fallacy Spotting 101

    Many of the preceding posts are instances of the No True Scotsmen fallacy.

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6

    March 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  2. Realistic

    Christians believe and follow the teaching of Jesus Christ. So, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Mormons are "Christians "(The "Mormons" is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

    March 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. wsu1983

    R S is a catholic NOT a Christian!! There's a BIG difference!!!

    March 14, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • dave

      Christian means follower of Christ, Catholics are Christians - We all know that in the Bible Jesus made the Apostle Peter the leader of His church and the Catholic Popes are in a direct line from Peter

      Protestants follow Martin Luther - Luther, sounds like Lucifer doesn't it

      March 15, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • toosliq

      Actually, Dave, "Christians" are those who have taken upon themselves the name "Christian" and who claim to follow Christ. I suggest you actually try reading the Bible and pay special attention to the actual words and teachings that are attested to coming directly from the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth.

      There are VERY FEW people on this planet and in history, in fact, that actually follow what Christ himself taught.

      March 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • dave

      foolsip you said the same thing I did – "follower of Christ "

      March 15, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • J.W

      Jesus didn't make Peter the leader of his church. That is a myth.

      March 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Over It

      Yeah, Catholics are "Christians".

      Protestants started calling themselves "Christians" a while back because "Protestant" sounded too negative... and it gave them an ident.ity not connected with just protesting some other church.

      March 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  4. scottpt1

    He has no more right to name real christians than the other rightie pundits who proclaim certain people great americans...we are all americans...some just hate science and logic and public education and clean water and air...but we are all still americans!!!!!!!!!

    March 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  5. mommatocharlie

    Being Christlike doesn't make a person a Christian.

    March 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • dave

      yes it does dummy -1. Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
      2. Relating to or derived from Jesus or Jesus's teachings.
      3. Manifesting the qualities or spirit of Jesus; Christlike.
      4. Relating to or characteristic of Christianity or its adherents.
      5. Showing a loving concern for others; humane.
      n.
      1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
      2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.

      March 15, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Bebe

      Actually, Dave, you are quite wrong. "One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus" wouldn't necessarily be Christian, and Indeed Jesus himself was not Christian since that religion was founded a good hundred years after his death. What Jesus preached and he taught were from the tenets of Judaism since he was a practicing Jew. And yet I have a feeling that most of you have a problem with that.

      March 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  6. Steve

    Who really cares if President Obama is Christian (and yes, I believe he is based on something called facts), Muslim or any other faith. Why do we focus in on what religion a person is when they run for office? None of their policies should be dictated by religion, but instead, should be conceived based on what would be best for the American population. Whether it be if contraception should be covered under insurance (it should as a legal medical treatment) or if abortion is right (Roe v. Wade made it legal, so if you are against it, don't have one), religion has no place in politics. I would sooner vote for an atheist or someone who practices voodoo that can balance the budget, create jobs and make the lives of myself and my family better than a devotedly religious person who wants to run the country under the rules of their "god". This country has done enough to pander to Christians, and it's time that we realize there are others in this country that are Jews, Muslims, Agnostics, Atheists and a myriad of other religions that don't subscribe to the same tenets of Catholicism.

    March 12, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  7. Chris

    Diane, you make no sense.

    To the point of this article, I don't know whether or not Obama is a Christian. That's not for me to judge. What I can judge are his actions and his actions have been very non-Christlike over the last few years.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Mike

      Name one person whose actions wholly represent Christianity...other than Christ

      Then name a candidate

      March 11, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • scottpt1

      wow...how so

      March 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • George Washington

      Chris...you make no sense! Obama's healthcare plan actions are entirely Christ-like. Do you think that Jesus would want people to suffer? After all, the majority of his words during his 33 years were spent addressing the needs of the poor. Where are the Christian conservatives on those issues. They are unlike Christ in wanting to repeal programs for the poor. Instead, they launch culture wars aimed at stirring up the stupid people who fail to see shades of gray and will only accept black and white answers, regardless of how silly those answers are. However, I'm sure Jesus would love GUNS...bang bang!!

      March 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Bugboy

      Chris, do tell us why you are looking to our President as your saviour?

      March 14, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • dave

      Jesus helped the poor -"you cannot serve God and Mammon" "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven"

      Republicans help the rich Republicans love money

      March 15, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Jim

      In what way do you find President Obama's actions less "Christ" like over the past 3 years than President GW Bush's over the preceding 8? If attempting to extend health care to more people and attempting to preserve the environment is less Christ like than attacking Iraq for no good reason other than good politics I'd like to know.

      March 18, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Realistic

      It is interesting that democrats are trying to tie Christianity to social issues. Sorry, Obamacare is not a compassion. Forcibly making others pay insurance costs of others is contrary to individual freedom and Judo-christian philosophy. The Shriners (and millions of citizens) donate time and money to help the poor. Government solutions to all of society's ills is not the answer.

      March 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Diane

    I know plenty of Buddhists and Hindus who by the way they treat their fellow men act more Christlike then most Christians. It always makes me laugh when Christians say "keep the Sabbath day Holy" but then go and dine at a restaurant after their church service is over.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • dave

      yes b/c restaurants are unholy - ???

      March 15, 2012 at 10:59 am |
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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.