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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. Muneef

    I like to post on stale articles. Few people come back to argue with me then.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Muneef

      Haha 🙂
      This comment above was not made by me but some one who feels being stale...

      January 15, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  2. Muneef

    Just what the world needs, another Middle East conflict

    http://maritimeprofessional.net/Blogs/Far-East-Maritime/January-2012/Just-what-the-world-needs,-another-Middle-East-con.aspx

    January 12, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  3. darren

    this article just makes santorum even more unlikely he will be elected. santorum and freedom should not be used in the same sentence.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  4. John

    And not even a mention of the travesty of his machinations in the Terri Schiavo case? His actions there preclude me from even entertaining him as a viable candidate.

    January 11, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  5. Bulla

    This guy is a racist, dangerous moron. If he were to become president, his first day on the job he would issue an order for the genocide of all minorities.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Klaus

      Thank you for telling me that.

      Now I'm going to go vote for him.

      January 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Anthony

    I can't help but look at the picture of his family and wonder which one of the boys is gay.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  7. maeve

    Rick Santorum is an idiot! How could he possibly represent the citizens of this country? He would constantly try to shove his Catholic obsession down everyones throat, regardless if you were Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Moslem, Mormon, or Tree Worshiper. We are supposed to have Freedom of Religion in this country. There is no state religion. As to his questionable choice of taking the corpse of his tiny child home for a "show and tell" with his kids. I am amazed that the hospital would allow this event to happen. Does that hospital allow all patients to do that? For all age corpses?

    January 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  8. Michael SlaveOfChrist

    Santorum is in a cult called Catholicism. The practice of the mass shows they do not know God. They are not born of God. God is displeased with this ceremony of the Catholics called "mass". It is a wicked concept, because they are not satisfied with the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, who sacrificed Himself once for the sins of His people. They want a hand in it. They want to keep on offering Him. They think God is pleased with this. But God hates this wickedness. This is religious wickedness, and hatred of Christ, hatred of God. I tell you the truth.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Antony

      And you in the larger cult called christianity. All religions are cults. Cults have no place in politics. The GOP is bent on turning the USA into a theocracy.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • SPA Knight

      Michael, your comments about the Catholic Mass are incorrect and you are poorly informed. The offering of the Eucharist is in obedience to Christ who commanded his followers to celebrate the new covenant – "Then he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me, do this in memory of me" – Luke 22:19

      Eating his body and drinking his blood is the closet you can be to Christ brother! A glimpse of heaven on earth.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Gino Port

    AWESOME STORY. Santorum KNOWS where he stands and wont budge on his principles. AWESOME, AWESOME, AWESOME.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Craig Howell

      Not quite. Try: AWFUL. AWFUL. AWFUL.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  10. fred

    Seldom is the new Republican.

    January 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  11. Klaus

    JFK was a f-ag and a communist.

    Pity he was spared torture but gunned down like the mindless animal he was.

    January 10, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Real America

      My daughter wanted a Klaus Barbie when she was small.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      I wish I was a conservative, just like you @Klaus.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Rick

      Klaus is no conservative. He is an angry little bloviator

      January 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • BillnTed

      Why are you using up the oxygen that decent people need to live?

      January 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      Klaus: Now THERE'S an Aryan, German, Nazi sounding name if I have EVER heard one... Klaus, I think you were presciently named.

      January 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  12. stephen a

    Santorum is a very dangerous radical religious fanatic who would like to everyone to be a good Christian just like he is.

    January 10, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      amend: THINKS he is.

      January 10, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  13. Robskins

    Santorum for president!!

    http://www.santorumstyle.com

    January 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • fred

      Not elected in his own state. Not electable.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  14. solex

    The main issue that makes this stand out is the obvious hypocrisy of the evangelical members of the GOP.

    You cannot on the one hand demand small government with little to no oversight on the one hand, while attempting to interfere with the private and personal lives of Americans.

    Santorum was in favor of the government intervening in the Terri Schaivo (Remember her?) case, and is attemtping to get religious dogma made into the law of the land.

    You cannot have it both ways – demanding little to no government – but then expecting government to regulate your version of morality – How does that work?

    January 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      How does that work? Exactly as you noted above "the obvious hypocrisy".

      January 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Anderson

      Small government does not mean no government. That you confuse the two does not mean Santorum (or any conservative who thinks government should act is the steward for the moral foundation of the nation).

      January 11, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  15. solex

    Christianity is NOT the state religion of the USA

    January 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Not for the lack of trying. Thank god for the Consti.tution. Its the only thing that stands between us and a theocracy.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Klaus

      MarkInFl,

      What's it feel like to wake up every morning lacking thoughts of your own and complete ignorance of basic US history?

      Please self-euthanise.

      Thank you.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • solex

      Markin – I do find it interesting that you are thanking God for protecting us from a theocracy...

      January 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Its the ironic use of a common phrase that has lost all literal meaning. Also, there are many religious people that do thank their god that we do not live in a theocracy. It should be everyone since the theocracy may not be the one of your choosing.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. karma

    ...ok, so this guy and many other evangelicals want to impose a christian sharia on this nation? so...what happens to those of "other" faiths? covert or be eliminated? deported? socially/economically castigated? new form of racism based upon a person's "faith"? no, i dont like the way these people think...rather have freedom from religion than freedom of religion if this is the case...

    January 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Its OK, we live in America! You won't have to be a devout Catholic. You'll just have to act like one.

      January 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  17. Voltairine

    Theology stunts your mental growth.

    January 10, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  18. Aerin

    Buggeroff Rick!

    January 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Dennis Goulet

    Vote Democrat ! Protect the right to Separation of Church and State !

    January 10, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Klaus

      Vote democrat - coddle pedophiles, give rights to f-ags and necro-philes, and ensure that everyone lives off welfare and is high on drugs.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Heck, I'd vote democrat just to make you mad.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • fred

      Klaus already is mad.

      January 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Rick

      Klaus is a troll. F him or her

      January 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  20. Dennis Goulet

    Santorum wants to marry religion (the pope) but won't allow gays to marry ! Speaks volumes about his political and religious views. "Do as I say not as I do" !

    January 10, 2012 at 11:25 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.