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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. Grandma

    USA is a Christian country.... Don't like it? Go to HELL

    January 8, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • bnb42

      The Treaty of Tripoli
      Signed by John Adams

      "As the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] ... it is declared ... that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever product an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries....
      "The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation."
      - Treaty of Tripoli (1797), carried unanimously by the Senate and signed into law by John Adams (the original language is by Joel Barlow, US Consul)

      January 8, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • calmncool

      Your're behaving anything but like a christian grandma. I don't think Jesus would approve.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • JC in Western U.S.

      It's people like you who give Christianity a bad name.
      You are not Christian. Christians strive to live the word of Christ. But you are a hateful, judgmental person who does not live according to the scriptures you claim to believe. Would you have said what you said if Jesus was standing at your side? Do you think He would be proud of you? It's Sunday. Go read your Bible and try to nurture whatever spark of true Christianity remains at the bottom of your cold angry heart.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • FU GRANDMA

      Actually the USA is NOT a christian country. This country was based on the freedom of religion not on Christianity! And I do believe if anyone were to burn in hell it would be you for breaking a commandment and a cardinal rule of judging others. Now just go crawl back into whatever backwoods bible belt hillbilly place you call home and get an education on reality!

      January 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  2. RaceBannon

    The media generated "controversy" over his decision to bring home their deceased child so the family could morn, embodies everything that is ugly and wrong about running for president of this nation.

    Who are these critics to judge a deeply personal decision? It was the perfect example of callous, mean-spirited, mockery that has become the norm in today's joke of a mass media.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • calmncool

      Some beliefs change from moment to moment, depending on whether they can be used as ammunition to attack those of another belief.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • derp

      Any nutbag insane enough to bring a corpse home and pass it around among family members is far to wacked to EVER be president.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  3. cigarlover6

    looks like Rick liked going to church as a child. He really liked it, you know?

    January 8, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. MAD

    D!RTY JEWS ARE THE REASON FOR OUR BAD ECONOMY

    January 8, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • bnb42

      If you forget history... it will repeat itself.... Please read the history of WW2

      January 8, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • JC in Western U.S.

      bnb42 – The problem is that he WOULD LOVE to relive one side of WWII, and it's not the side that won.
      As long as people like him exist, people like the rest of us need to be very alert and very aware that, given a chance, people like him would repeat, with relish, a "Final Solution" in this nation.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  5. Kay

    Santorum's done, thanks to his clearly stated plans to turn America into a militant Christian theocracy.

    Better luck next time, Rick!

    January 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  6. PampA

    I HOPE ALL NON-CHRISTIANS BURN IN HELLLL U UNDERSTAND FACKING JEWS

    January 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • bnb42

      Thank you.... Very Christian of you

      January 8, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • JC in Western U.S.

      Go away. Go back under your rock.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • cigarlover6

      It seems you are already burning in hell due to your agony.. tch... tch..

      January 8, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  7. Duck Dodgers

    Rick Santorum has his own version of the bible.
    Fred Phelps also has his own version of the bible.
    I wouldnt put him in the white house either.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  8. Pampã

    Heil Hi.tler !!

    January 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  9. hustlenflo

    Phony religious piety is just one more part of the Republican plan to create jobs.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  10. Joop Kaashoek

    People like Sanatorum are living in the wrong century. He somehow keeps thinking that the first century was so great. Now we have separation of church and state, why doesn't he get that?

    January 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  11. Hiitler

    FUUUUUCK ALL JEWS AND ATHEISTS I HOPE U DIE!!!

    January 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • nirgles

      what a waste of flesh. you should have been aborted.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Tom C

      What a good Christian you are.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  12. Banderman

    Yet when Obama does the same with his religious beliefs; the lame scream media remains mute.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • happy jack

      Give us an example.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Brent Slensker

      Yes please give an example...

      January 8, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Duck Dodgers

      *** Banderman

      Yet when Obama does the same with his religious beliefs; the lame scream media remains mute.

      Please feel free to enlighten us, as to how President Obama has used
      his religion on the rest of us ?
      You right wing trolls are like drive by shootings.
      "Lame scream media" ?
      Makes you sound like a six year old Palin supporter.
      How sad for you.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  13. GRS62

    I believe in God but I don't believe a nation should be governed under one particular belief. Religion provides the basic moral guidelines of civilization. Most religions have the same core values and message. Unfortunately, history shows that "National" religions can be twisted by it's leaders and followers into one of oppression, hatred and greed.
    I may not agree with every aspect of separation of Church and state, but I believe a nation and it's government should treat it's citizens with equality and neither favor nor exclude based upon religion.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • m4ddy

      Your comment was one of the better ones on this page, but one of the major problems with religions in America today, especially Christianity is that Christians assume that morality comes from religion. Logical people believe that the Bible can teach a lot, but it is not necessarily (and in reality is probably not) true. Morality comes from a mindset depending on how one is brought up and taught. If parents need the Bible to teach such lessons to kids, then so be it, but a lot of other people do not, and those people, although not Christian, are just as moral and upstanding. Religion is a private affair. People like Santorum and the Evangelists want to shove it in everyone's faces all the time and then when free-thinking, logical people remind them about our first amendment, they claim their religion is being attacked. No one, especially a man who's part of a religion that still doesn't believe in equal rights for women, should be able to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body, especially since most abortions occur when the "life" in question is considered a zygote, or embryo, and cannot survive on its own outside of the mother.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • GRS62

      m4ddy: I agree completely and I didn't mean to imply that those who follow a religion own morality. Thanks for your comment and have a beautiful life...

      January 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  14. ROCKWOOD

    hmmmmmm

    January 8, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  15. jose

    Well, our first catholic president (JFK for the clueless) got us involved in a Vietnamese quagmire
    trying to save the corrupt Diem regime. Not very smart.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • calmncool

      I recall several presidents who managed to get us involved in wars and questionable military actions. Until George Bush, I don't remember a president's religious beliefs being involved in the deicisons making at all.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  16. GeeEmCee

    For the record – I barely had time to post a comment before a reply was waiting

    January 8, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  17. nytw

    If elected will Ricky pardon all the catholic priests charged with child abuse?

    January 8, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • GeeEmCee

      Well...he'll probably pardon all of those child-beating Texans, though. Why America thinks it ok...since they fail to prosecute 'em.

      After all, they wear big-assed ten gallon hats. You do know why they wear those big ol' hats...right? Well, let me tell you what my daddy always used ta say. Daddy said, "Texans wear those big ol' hats because when they'd be out a cow-punchin' or miles from any toilet..."

      That's what my daddy used to always say.

      I think he's right. It's why I don't touch a Texan's hat. It's pretty filled to the rim.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  18. calmncool

    I was around when JFK ran for president. I VOTED for him. I remember that there was concern about is being Catholic, but he seemed to keep his religion and his politics in separate boxes. After he was elected I don't recall any of those nagging references to his Catholicism. In this day and age, after all I've heard about his platform don't think I could vote for Rick Santorum. It shows how much religion has become a part of our political system, when really it shouldn't be.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  19. Rainer Braendlein

    “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.”

    Isn't it ridiculous to hang up a picture of the Antichrist (the pope) and Jesus together?

    January 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • RCLM

      I wish people would quit calling him a Christian. He is a Catholic and they are NOT Christians.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • calmncool

      Catholics ARE christians, you twit. I have my doubts about YOU however, no matter what you call yourself.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Duck Dodgers

      *** RCLM

      I wish people would quit calling him a Christian. He is a Catholic and they are NOT Christians.

      Different side of the same coin.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  20. Matt

    The fact that he lost resoundingly in Pa in 2006 was not an act of God....it was an act of the voters who, like me, thought he was bats..t crazy. The fact that some evangelicals in IA agree with him says nothing about his broad based appeal to American voters.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Matt2

      *slow clap*

      January 8, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • nirgles

      here here

      January 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Duck Dodgers

      Matt, wait, i am confused.
      When the quarterback gets a touchdown he thanks god.
      When he fumbles the football, its not gods fault.

      Oh, NOW i get it,
      God works in mysterious ways!

      January 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
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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.