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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. NOT MY CHAIR

    even though they were told their child was going to have a very disabled life, they were going to have it anyway? that doesn't seem right. that poor child was going to suffer and fight everyday of its life. it probably would not of had a fulfilling life, and never be able to take care of it self. that is the life that they wanted for their child? also if some one can point out the verse in the bible that says gays and abortions are evil i would love to read it. there is no way this idiot will become president

    January 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • KV

      "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination" (Leviticus 18:22). "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them" (Leviticus 20:13).

      January 9, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  2. GeorgeBos95

    Kennedy had it right, Santorum has it wrong. While the evangelicals may rally around him, that won't carry him very far.

    We don't need a religious tyrant as President. Ever.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  3. ray

    hello people, cant you see who these people on the right are?? all racists. all anti immigrant,hates black people and most of all they want this pesident out the white house at any and all cost not because they dont like him but because they hate the thought of a blackman banging in the white house. its called the WHITE HOUSE .

    January 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • What me worry.

      Ray – chill. Only one racist can be seen in your comments !!!!!!

      January 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      his comments aren't racist, he wasn't aiming at a color or race of people

      January 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  4. Jon

    Huh. Santorum's Catholic? And now he's the great Evangelical hope? Will the ironies never cease.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  5. Tom

    Just two quick comments:

    George Weigel is no theologian.

    It is inaccurate to say that conventional Catholics of 60s and 70s "spent absolutely no time discussing how religion influenced their public policy views." Thousands of Catholics frequently discussed how faith shaped their political views, even while favoring a certain restraint and separation advocated by Kennedy.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  6. Amy

    Santor-rectum's stance on politics and Christianity have NOTHING to do with faith; it's about a socio-path who thinks he's right and God is only on his side.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  7. Dave

    I'd say Santorum is the one who has “sealed off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non-rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.”

    January 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. KMW

    He is not a religious nut. I live in New York City and most everyone here is so darn liberal that you don't even dare mention that you are going to Church. Christians are the most discrimated people in this city. Catholic Charities does more than any group in this country and the bigotry can be overwhelming at times.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Cindy

      All the catholics do here is bring in refuges from foreign lands.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Oh the terrible plight of the white, christian male in America!
      Since the country's inception, they've never been given a fair shake.
      Denied the right to vote, own land, limited educational options, forced to live in slums, sit at the back of teh bus...
      Oh wait – those are the things that white, christian males inflicted on those different than them.
      My bad.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • HellBent

      Careful, your Christian persecution complex is showing

      January 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • joeusavotes

      I know what you mean. All I can say is to continue on and do what is right. Eventually love and good overcomes hearts and minds of stone.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • KMW

      Cindy,

      For your information, Catholic is spelled with a capital C. You must be uneducated.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • 0-0

      Oh, the poor, poor persecuted christian majority.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • sam

      I've got a strong feeling you're not telling the real story here – I highly doubt you just 'mention church'. If you're going to work it into every damn conversation, no one wants to hear it, and you take that as being oppressed. No reason for you to be talking about it at all unless it's with your congregation. STFU. Plus no one gives a rat's a.ss whether catholic is capitalized or not.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • KMW

      Sam

      I do care and you sound so ignorant.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • sam

      It's not ignorance – it's calling you out on your BS. You add 'I'm a catholic!' to every post you make like it makes you special. Can't possibly imagine you do that in real life, too. It gets old, no one cares.

      January 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  9. Joe Average

    Rick Santorum is such a hyprocrite. On the one hand is says he wants government out of people's lives, and yet at the same time, he wants the government to tell people who they can or cannot marry. We need less government not more.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  10. babs

    Rick Tornscrotum: Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!

    January 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Cindy

    Santorum is the reason we must have "separation of church and state" in this country. This man has no qualms about forcing his religion down the throats of americans. A pledge was made to early christian americans to keep the church out of politics. It was the catholic church that most of our ancestors came to america to get away from. Americans in the 30's, 40's and 50's would never vote a catholic into office. That is why the Kennedy's took that pledge. Old american religions still stand for separation of church and state, like the mennonites. A man on a call-in show discribed Santorum correctly. He is a freak.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • PeteH

      If you say that what you believe in won't affect you're judgement in public office, you're a liar. At least Santorum is being honest about the influence of his faith on his work. What a shocker; the possibility of an honest man in the White House!

      If you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything...

      January 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • KMW

      Cindy,

      You are ugly inside and out. I am a proud Catholic and am thrilled that you are not one of mine.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • A*

      You are ugly inside and out. I am a proud Catholic
      -
      How ironic-pratice what you preach much?

      January 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • sam

      @KMW: LOL you're precious.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • KMW

      A,

      I will go to confession and confess. I will not change my opinion.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • sam

      LOL "I was a doosh on the internet." I bet that's the least of the stuff you need to confess to.

      January 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • realitybites

      KMW, go and confess to your celebate priest to get to God. Make sure you drop a buck in the "Get my family out of pergatory" box to pay for the Pope's Pradas and light a candle to whatever saint you feel will enbody you problem and pass your payers onto God for you.

      January 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  12. Cassandra Chu

    ... we need to get the Religio-Freaks out of politics. Vote Ron Paul!

    January 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  13. RON4152

    Oy VEY!! What would Jesus say?

    January 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      As a 2,000 year old zombie, I imagine Jesus would say "urrrrrr", or perhaps "braaaaains".

      January 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  14. Rosslaw

    Wait a second, God called for Michelle Bachmann to run for President. I heard her say it myself. So does this make Santorum God's "B" team?

    January 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • jimjames

      Actually, "God" told Herman Cain that he wanted him to be President.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  15. Nick

    What happened to the separation between church and state in this country? I thought that's one of the reasons for founding this country?!

    January 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • 666

      It's long gone! Along with many of our rights.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Nevis mn

      And Rick is the one to criticize the Iran theocracy.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  16. MyOpinion

    How different is Santorum from the Taliban? In fact they are much different in that both say that civil law must be the same as God's law. Santorum and the Taliban both say that the Church/Mosque laws and State laws are one and the same. No differentiation between Church and State. Under Santorum the United States of America could become the Afghanistan of the Western Hemisphere. Be scared people, be very scared.

    January 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • pattyo27

      You're so right on the money. I refuse to live under the Christian's version of Sha'ria Law. These candidates don't represent me.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • JenniferUCD

      Except that he doesn't intend to enforce his beliefs with beheading and stonings... you're right.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  17. Bryan

    I didn't read the whole article, but I read enough to know I would not vote for him (not that I was planning to). All of the candidates are religious though (including Obama), which is fine as long as they don't try to impose religion or religious views on the nation.

    January 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • J.W

      Santorum should hope for Perry and Gingrich to drop out now because he will probably pick up most of those votes. I think it could be close after that but I think Romney will win the nomination. They are trying to find the person who they think can beat Obama, but they dont seem to like Huntsman so Romney is the next best thing.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  18. dave

    such an inspiration, everyone should google 'Santorum' to get more info on this candidate 🙂

    January 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • J.W

      What happens when you google it? I am afraid it will bring up something that Christians are not allowed to see.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Yeah

      Yeah, google it then you will see he was one the most corrupt senators in 2005 & 2006, yeah such an inspiration. NOT!

      January 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • HellBent

      @JW

      I would suggest you don't try it either at work, in public, or directly before or after eating, unless you're on a purge diet.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • J.W

      LOL now you are making me curious, but I will prepare myself first.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • KMW

      He has my vote! He is refreshing in today's world.Go Rick Santorum!

      January 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Yeah

      "He has my vote! He is refreshing in today's world.Go Rick Santorum!"

      Oh yeah, then Obama can kick his butt with his corrupt record from 2005 & 2006! Yeah, go Rick!

      January 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • pattyo27

      I've been to his website. He's exactly as nuts as this article portrays him to be. Your religion doesn't belong in my politics. We need an Atheist president to demonstrate real morality.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • KMW

      Obama is an atheist so we do have one in office.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • J.W

      I do not know if Obama is an atheist. It is possible. I definitely do not see what could be so refreshing about Rick Santorum. I think more of the word scary for him.

      January 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  19. CaliMafia

    Ah, yes, the infamous "God's Plan" strikes again................The word is delusional, I believe

    January 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  20. snowyowl

    American Taliban

    January 9, 2012 at 1:20 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.