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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

soundoff (2,874 Responses)
  1. Gonzo

    The pope is the anti christ.
    Little Ricky Scrotorum is a willing alter boy.
    The power and the glory.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  2. gman

    What would he tell his son or daughter if he found out they were gay? Would his own child be afraid to tell him in fear of banishment. What if his kid wanted to be an atheist, would he banish that child? What if he was asked to donate 20% of his income to his religious group? Would he do it? These questions always come to mind when someone uses their faith to guide or lead others.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Gonzo

      **** gman

      What would he tell his son or daughter if he found out they were gay?

      Santorum would just call Bachmann and they would pray it away.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • jim atmadison

      In Santorum's thinking, that gay child would be doomed to Hell because of how God made them.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  3. Is America really secular?!

    """"""""America is a secular nation BUT with Christmas & Easter as public holidays (Good Friday in 11 states""""""""""""""

    January 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  4. Copernicus

    Hmmm...wasn't JFK a Chatholic ??? Yet he was a great leader of the left? We are such a country of little minds and short memories.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • jim atmadison

      Your point? Few lefties care what a candidate's reilgious beliefs are, as long as they don't bring their religiosity to the policy-making table.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Robert

      Kennedy was only on the Left as seen in the 1960's. If you look at the laws he signed as a President and voted for as a Senator you can tell that he would be considered very conservative by modern standards. This guy was a political ally of Senator McCarthy if that rings any bells.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  5. Boston85

    NO way this would be written if he was a Jew. 40+ years since kennedy and NOTHING changes in this country. Any woman who runs is a menstruating psycho, a black is still seen as promiscuous or devil like.... Im sure Romney and other mormons will be next..that they are not "Christian" or follow a "strange" bible..
    oh and by the way people...Santorum is Italian...so im waiting for the MOB relationship or stereotyping to begin.......

    January 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  6. Yep, what this world needs...

    Elect this guy and we'll all be knee-deep in santorum.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  7. FedUpwithLA

    I do not think that Kim Jong-Un is very influenced by religion, so why don't we vote for him? Ahmadinejab isn't Catholic either, so there's no scare there. Why not vote for him, also? Good luck marrying politics and religion. It never has worked over the millennia . . .

    January 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  8. Jazzy

    AMERICA NEEDS TO ENFORCE CHRISTIANITY TO ALL CITIZENS, OTHERWISE THEY SHOULD LEAVE! Look at Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. the citizens live in paradise!

    January 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  9. SantoriumPuppetofAmericanBeliefs

    Folks I wanna puppet and regurgatate anything you want to hear to get elected.
    If you want me to be the keeper of all womens p r ivate parts and play the role of G o d I am your man. Women should have no right on a b ortion or their bodies. If you want me to send troops to war per our recent poll takers then by g od I will.
    Remember folks I am your elected on and I will get on the Republican party of wealth and take care of the top 1% and the rest who cares.
    Vote for me! I am your puppet till elected.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  10. gager

    Keep religion out of politics. There is enough of that insanity in the world already.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  11. WDinDallas

    God Bless Rick. We need a candidate like you. Secularization has poisioned our country, the vitrolic comments in this blog proves that.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Jazzy

      Amen

      January 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Jim

      Why is not wanting someone to force their beliefs on you hateful?

      I seems that the people that don't realize that not everyone thinks like they do is far more hateful and intolerant.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Gonzo

      Figures he is from Texas,
      splains everything.

      Hey, Mexico, we have a gift for you.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  12. rachbell

    This is rediculous! Keep religion out of government!!!!!!!!

    January 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Jazzy

      NO MOVE OUT THEN!!

      January 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Jim

      Thank you Jazzy. Thank you very very much.

      "Convert or move out" is PRECISELY what the Spanish inquisition said to jews and muslims in the 15th century.

      Thank you for demonstrating that christion thinking has not changed in 500 years.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  13. Chris

    USA is a Christian country and was founded by Christian founding fathers. Yes, we do have seperation of church and state, but our culture, holidays and majority of people are Christians !

    January 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • rachbell

      Stop living in the past. Do you realize that caucasians are just a few short years from becoming a minority? Religion needs to be kept out of government. We all have the freedom to practice whatever religion, or no religion, that we want as long as it doesn't infringe on others. Putting christianity into goverment does precisely that.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • 21k

      and most"xtians" don't act like jesus, so you'd actually conclude that most americans are not really xtians.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Muri

      Wrong. Blatantly wrong.
      For eff sake it's a simple google search to utterly destroy the misconception that this country was founded on religious principle. I mean do you people even remember why we came to America in the first place...I mean really it is utterly sad that half this damn country didn't retain basic knowledge from their history/civics courses in high school.

      WE LEFT ENGLAND PRIMARILY TO ESCAPE RELIGIOUS DRIVEN POLITICS.

      Our founding fathers are rolling over in their graves every time one of you incorrectly espouses religion as a core tenant of this once great nation.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • alkan2012

      the founding fathers were Christians, but they were also slave owners. Should we return to slavery because our founding fathers endorsed it?

      January 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Do Not Disassemble

      Secular.
      Nice try.
      Next.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Boink

      Nice copy and paste.
      I saw this response months ago on another story.....
      word for word.
      Chris doesnt think for himself, just repeats what he has been told.
      Ignorant troll.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Robert

      The idea that we are a "Christian nation" founded by Christians" is extremely inaccurate. Yes, many of them were Christian but very few we by the definition that you might consider a Christian. Thomas Jefferson was by most standards an Deist and even wrote a version of the Bible that included much of the Christian philosophy but none of revelations of God. Washington attended church but never toke communion. Adams was a Unitarian. Most of these guys subscribed to a flavor of Christianity that doesn't really exist today. They may have taken lessons from the Bible but they also understood the absolute necessity that the government and church should have nothing to do with one another.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  14. 21k

    better stock up on birth control now, he plans to make it's possession or use a felony. hope you will all be ok being catholics, because that will be another law he will push.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  15. Jim

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    Where would Rick Santorum fly America?

    January 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • lolwut

      back to a little place called the Dark Ages.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  16. Bernie Ward

    CNN, Did you also do an article on Obama before he was elected? Your motives are very obvious.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • jim atmadison

      There were thousands of articles on Obama before he was elected. Were you in prison or on drugs at the time?

      January 8, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Boink

      AAaaaawwww, you mad because you didnt like what they said
      about your hero ?
      Did you actually read and comprehend the story?
      Or did you just stomp your feet and get mad because the bad ole liberals
      attacked a republican candidate ?

      Dont shoot the messenger because, you didnt like the message.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Back To The Cave

      Thousands of em, you six year old moron.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  17. moronparty

    CNN stop pretending Romney isn't wining the Republican nomination, its over! Santorum is a crazy freak

    January 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • jim atmadison

      This Republican campaign has been the FUNNIEST political theatre in my fifty-(mumble) year lifetime.

      I really want it to keep going as long as possible.

      To paraphrase a great philosopher: What a bunch of maroons!

      January 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  18. Howie76

    I cannot vote for anyone who is a member of an organization that has condoned the abuse of children and then tried to hide the abusers by sending them to a new crop of children. They then hide the assets so the victims get nothing and have to fight in court just to get counseling. How can a truly devout person belong to such an evil organization.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • be

      it is no different than any other religious organization from that standpoint.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • jim atmadison

      The Catholic Church's handling of the pedophile priest situation is pathetic. They still haven't really dealt with it.

      But I won't criticize every Catholic parishoner because their leadership sucks.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  19. Jim

    Is a religion that eats human flesh and drinks human blood a cult?

    January 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • WDinDallas

      That is so first century.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Jim

      Yet it continues today.

      So, cult or no cult?

      January 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • jim atmadison

      Everybody has their own definition of 'cult'. I doubt that anybody cares what yours is.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  20. Sac95678

    Great! A potential President that believes in a church that allowed pedophile priest to assualt childern... and it's still going on to this day! What's next? Will Rick Santorum pardon these priest and let them run free once again?

    January 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Howie76

      My thoughts exactly!

      January 8, 2012 at 9:49 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.