home
RSS
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. ThinkAgain

    What is the difference between Santorum and his desire to establish a theocracy and the Mullahs in Iran?

    NOTHING! Different god (God by another name), same fanaticism.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • cigarlover6

      exactly!

      January 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  2. John

    Religion has NO place in government was is this the Taliban?! Its a proven fact the most very religious people are undereducated and less intelligent, their religion is a refuge from not properly understanding the real world. The u.s. is not the place for religious fanaticism. But these politicians know that the majority of the voters in the country are undereducated and therefore religious and will vote for that why? because they keep cutting funding for education, this country has some of the lowest standards for education in the world. Lets NOT go back to the Dark Ages! This is the 21st Century we need science and technology not monks in robes reading ancient texts from an antiquated time. The problems of this country are NOT religious ones, keeping gays from sharing equal rights like all human beings is not going to improve the economy, ITS the economy STUPID! The GOP is really all about making the 1% richer at the expense of the 99% which is most likely YOU the reader and they will use religion to fool the poorer classes into voting for them while in their private backrooms they laugh at you for falling for their trick by getting you to vote for people who WILL HURT YOU financially. Dont vote for the guys who are against your best interests who only support the rich vote for the guy who is truly for the middle class and poor.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • cigarlover6

      well said, this is very likely the case.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  3. PaulNYC

    I thought this was already done during the Holy Roman Empire.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  4. Adam Rose

    do not elect this jesus-freak!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  5. G. Carvalho

    As James Madison, one of the Framers, observed, mixing religion and politics degrades both.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. JC in Western U.S.

    Alll that anyone needs to do in order to understand why people are put off by those who wear their religion like a crown is to read the comments here. As you continue to read, note that the people exhibiting the most hate, the most intolerance, the most venom, are those who claim to be devoutly Christian. They are the reason that the rest of us are leery about electing someone like Rick Santorum.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  7. CommonSensed

    I have an idea, Mr. Santorum – keep your religion to YOURself and keep it out of OUR politics. That said, you've already made your bed and, being a member of the Christian Taliban, there's no way you're getting elected. Hope you enjoy your future on the Christian Taliban lecture circuit.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • RationalFew

      If you look at his finances you'll find that he's on the gravy train since adopting this platform. Some people like Rick, Glen Beck and old Rush have made fortunes pandering hate speech as religion and conservatism. Look at Ann Coulter.. Does even she believe the crap that comes out of her mouth. Or are these character more of less the political version of Howard Stern?

      January 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  8. Michael

    Put a rubber on it Santorunm!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Rick McDaniel

    Santorum's religious views are too extreme, for me to be comfortable with him, as President.

    I actually would fear what he might try to do, with religion, in government, and I would not support him at all. Nor do I support the antiquated views of the Catholic Church, especially on contraception, as humans have over populated, and are destroying this planet, which simply means the Church is totally out of touch with reality.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  10. joshu

    I'm christian but I do not buy in this guy's policies. This nation was founded on separation of church and state. Religion and government are not meant to mix.(crusades, divine right, taliban, Iran) It only breeds chaos and hate from corrupt people who twist religion around.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  11. Michael

    Saty out of my life and my bedroom you cultist.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  12. Lisa

    Santorums are apparently ok with playing God and second-guessing His decision.

    Imagine what he might do for the rest of us.

    The man needs mental health help.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  13. Less than an hour to football

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  14. W.G.

    Santorum would stop religious freedom if elected and turn the U.S. into another Iran .

    January 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  15. Maria Smith

    Rick Santorum is one of the reasons for birth control!!!!!!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  16. Joseph R. Alberti

    I am a RCC as for me Rick Santorum is the farthest thing from a good RCC that thier is. He is a bigoted self centered arrogant human being who is using his faith as some sort of shield to excuse his approach to human rights and dignity. He pretentious piety is very transparent and he does not represent any Catholics that I know. President Kennedy was a good Catholic and knew that church and state should not be intermingled. As Jesus said "Give to Cesar what is Cesar's"......

    January 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Shawn Irwin

      "Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite." – Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince)
      Niccolo Machiavelli said this in his writing, "The Prince", which is a compendium of advice to those who rule nations . . . . . and as you see, he saw religion as a tool of rulers to keep the general populace under control. Seems to be working pretty good here in America. . . . Lots of people buy into it when these politicians flaunt their "religousness".

      January 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  17. jim atmadison

    ......and the latest polls show that Jon Huntsman has pulled ahead of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in New Hampshire.

    Well, that 15 minutes was fun.

    BTW, so much for Ron Paul's supposed crossover appeal. If he had any appeal outside of the nutcase right wing of the GOP, it should show up in a moderate, independent-leaning state like New Hampshire.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • JC in Western U.S.

      Really?!? Is that true about Huntsman? That's the best news I've heard all week! Maybe there is hope after all.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • RationalFew

      Huntsman is the only level headed intelligent republican of the bunch. But he doesn't get any attention since the repubs are into extremism.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • cigarlover6

      Thats good news. Huntsman seems to be the only one looking like a normal person. And he is ignored by the religious zealots and fanatics.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  18. Debbie

    Marrying religion to politics is blasphemy. Perhaps Santorum and all the others can stop using Christ for political and actually follow and serve Christ. Then they can call themselves Christians.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Mike

      There are No True Scotsmen.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  19. WHO CARES!!!

    Why does it even matter about the presidential race??? A lot you religious fanatics believe that the world will have an apocalypse at the end of the year anyways so WHO CARES!!!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • GAW

      Welcome to the contradiction that is called American Religion.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Grasshopper

      Could it be that, some believe so much that the apocalypse
      and the return of jesus is going to happen,
      that they will make sure it happens ?
      World war 3 at meggido only to find when the smoke clears,
      that JC didnt make the party ?

      Thats what scares me.

      January 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  20. gary

    Santorum – I DO NOT WANT CATHOLICISM IN MY GOV'T! I WAN'T NO RELIGION IN MY GOV'T! KEEP YOUR RELIGION IN YOUR CHURCH!!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • jb1963

      Amen to that

      January 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53
Advertisement
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.