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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. Militant Nigra Beast

    Yu crakas beez racis! Yu think jus cuz da average american nigra I.Q. is 85 dat yu beez smart! We gunna teech yu crakas a leson! Yu see!

    January 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  2. fx61

    santorum dot com – nuff said LOL

    January 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • bajadelmar

      manondog.com???

      January 8, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  3. Tony

    A nice thick doo doo milkshake would go good right about now.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • Mr. Poo Poo

      You're reading my mind!

      January 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • shut up, herbie

      herbie, shut up.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  4. Anderson Cooper

    I like big burly black menz kidnapping me and holding me hostage in a motel all weekend using my mouth and bunghole as their personal amusment park.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  5. Lay-Z

    YO YO YO...my bytch BeYowScat spirted out our little nig let. YO YO YO all you nig gers.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      You really make a fool of out African Americans.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Santorum and opportunists like him are desp icable. This hypocrite has no desire to "serve" the public. He's in politics to line his own pockets and mas sage his own ego.

    Any candidate who purports to be in favor of less government but wants to limit a woman's right to choose can su ck hind t it and go f* c k goats.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • Jed

      Santorium is not only a woman hater, but also a hater of jews, blacks, asians and would like to re-instate slavery and the gas ovens of auschwitz for gays. He would like to make the Catholic Church our national religion. He probably had an affair with his pederast priest when he was in college. He is a nazi antichrist.

      January 9, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  7. dewitter

    Separation of church and state very important so that one group of religious people can't cram their reliigion on someone who don't agree with another religious groups or try to impose it on people that don't agree what you stand for.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  8. Your husbands big weiner is tastyLicious

    JFK was a lying, nig ger lovin sack of SHYT. Good Riddance to all those phuckin kennedys.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  9. Willie The Pimp

    Lawrin. u b sount pertty...come nibber on my D!ck ya ole cracka bytch.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  10. Gene

    To Lisa entry # 5. In a pluralistic society who gets to decide what is morally correct? The panel of gov't back inquisitors or few politicians that gained high office by using simple minded religious nuts to vote for them because they said all the right buzz words and phrases. No one can speak on gods behalf, if the deity really exists, because the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite. When politicians spew their religious crap, like Santorum and Gingrich they are tell the folks what that want to hear in order to get elected and if enough political nut jobs get in office you and many other will rue the day you voted for them, but by then it will be too late and our 200 + democracy will be over-stamped out by right wing Jesus freaks filling their pockets with cold hard cash from lobbyists and other slick deal makers (corporations) while restricting civil, political, and legal rights of the poor and middle class while the rich do whatever it is they are wont to do.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Jed

      Will Gingrich and Santorum stand at the oven door when they burn the gays and lesbians?

      January 9, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  11. tony

    No murder and no lying are two of the 10 commandments. So why don't religious conservatives make a big thing against making lying just as illegal as abortion.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • ned

      Tony, your brain is turning to mush. Stop eating doo doo.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Chrism

      Perjury is illegal

      January 8, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • tony

      Perjury is lying under oath. Is god deaf the rest of the time?

      January 8, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Chrism

      There are other forms of illegal lying, tony. Slander. Libel. Fraudulent contracts. Fraud in general. Im not a lawyer I believe written contracts are binding but verbal contracts are not. I'm sure if you back there's a whole history of people prosecuting others for lies and there's probably precedent established. I suspect it even comes down to the difficulty of proving something verbal. Perhaps if witnesses were present and it can be verified, even verbal fraud can be prosecuted. Yelling fire as a lie in a public crowd is illegal, But sure government only goes so far. So if your point is he government shouldn't micromanage I agree. I don't support sodomy laws like Santorum. I think that is an unnecessary intrusion into private lives. I also don't really support penalties for many things including abortion. I'd just like to make the laws such to discourage people from thinking they're so easy to get.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  12. tony

    Any god centric religion is based on the opposite ideal to democracy. So why is bringing religion into politics not illegal?

    January 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • *

      Perhaps because being anti-democratic is not illegal.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Chrism

      You do bring up an interesting issue. Id say I believe as God cn work through all people, and collective process allows more minds and hearts involved, it has benefits. But unfortunately many have indeed said democracy has flaws. Who was it who said when people learn they can vote themselves a handout, many will. It happens now. Some do not vote for what is moral or best for them, or likely what is God's will. But democracy itself, giving every person a voice in the process, recognizes human dignity which is very much a part of catholic belief. The church long opposed communism and fascism and supports democracy.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Chrism

      You know I probably didn't answer your question though my bad. I'd say democracy comes down to exactly as it is now, those voters who are of a religious belief may vote for a candidate most aligned with those beliefs. Certainly not illegal.

      January 8, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  13. Lindsays WeinerHole

    MLK loved getting his butthole slammed by RFK...RFK the nig ger lover.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  14. wandering questioner

    Just wondering, are we not fighting in the Middle East against Theocracy (among other things)? I, myself, consider myself Agnostic and I see the value of living in a society with rules of law based on physical humanity not ethereal. So is the GOP saying Catholic/Christian Theocracy is good and all others are bad and would the GOP be willing to step aside and let the Vatican take over running of America if the GOP was asked, or would the GOP still be pounding their fist and adding less religion to the list of smaller government in that scenario. I am wondering because I have heard them use God as their inspiration in all of their speeches but I have never heard them say how much their job would include their religious views (this includes Santorum). I just don’t want to have a commander in chief that decides he doesn’t like America’s moral standing and decides to Jim Jones us with our own nukes or start some secondary inquisition. I was raised under the belief that America was advertised as an inclusion of all religion, races, and beliefs. So where does that fit in with the GOP who all seem to be openly leaning towards one type of religion. As populations grows by leaps and bounds with melting pot we live in and the more ingredients that are added (all races, religions, and beliefs) I thought we Americans were advertised as being proud of our adaptability what has happened to this American idealism, because we seem we seem to have lost it.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Jed

      The GOP has no interest in smaller government. They simply want an end to open and free elections. The are looking for the formula that insures that only republicans will ever be elected. Eliminating minorities that they dont want to include in their white rich male power club is a major step to achieving that aim.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  15. TR6

    After all of the pedophilia incidents in the catholic church, I didn’t think it was possible to make them look worse; but, Santorum is doing his best to achieve it

    January 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  16. Franklin

    "[T]he procedure critics call partial-birth abortion" – Well then, what does CNN call it? What does reporter Dan call it? What does reporter Eric call it?

    January 8, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Yes, I wouldn't trust a catholic with my child or my country.

      January 9, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  17. AKBAR KASSAM

    I WILL AGREE, THOW, I AM NOT CHRISTIANS BUT MUSLIM. THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD FOR MUSLIMS, CHRISTIANS, JEWS, ETC. AND WE ALL BE GOING BACK TO HIM. THE COMMANDMENTS OF ALL RELIGIONS ARE THE SAME. GOD PUT US IN DIFFERENT FAITH IN ORDER TO RESPECT EACH OTHER AND THEIR RELIGIONS.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Yasim Salami

      ALLAH AKBAR DAM NIT.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • ashrakay

      apparently the god of ALL CAPS

      January 9, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  18. tony

    Never under-estimate the power of the collection plates to fund non-representative candidates.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  19. lebowski1776

    Separation of Church and State. Without it, the first ammendment is meaningless. The President is to be a referee for all, not a fan of one team.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  20. Dr.K.

    What's up with the handful of racist trolls? Please all "report abuse" to their comments.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • they're all herbie.

      he had a four-loco and thinks he's funny and smart. he's neither.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Sambo X

      Ya, dey beez racis! Da bes thang ta do iz dont let um express dey self! Dey beez racis crakas n' shiit!

      January 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Ole Grandad

      Eat nig ger doo doo.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • ray ray

      I saw som jiggerBoos get arrested today. It was hilarious.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Lauren

      That sounds hilarious! Hey what's it like having a defective brain? Does it give you headaches ever?

      January 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Barbara Walters

      Sounds like Lauren enjoys black nig ger D!cks in her mouth and butthole like me. Laurens coo~terhole is filled with MaggostShyt.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Sambo X

      Lauren beez all up on ma nuts n' shiit! I says "Ooh yu beez racis ..." an she gibs me wat I wants!

      January 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      santorum fans

      January 8, 2012 at 10:36 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.