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My Take: Why should Santorum decide who's a real Christian?
February 20th, 2012
01:03 PM ET

My Take: Why should Santorum decide who's a real Christian?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

There has been much chatter in recent days about the reinjection of religious matters into the presidential campaign, with a focus on the increasingly bitter debate over Catholics and contraception. But Rick Santorum has just opened up a new and dangerous front in the culture wars.

We are now being asked to debate which of the Christians running for president is really a Christian. I am referring here not to questions about Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism according to many evangelicals is not the right theological stuff, but to questions about President Barack Obama.

In the past, the strategy on the right was to intimate that Obama was a closet Muslim (he is not.) It was too crass even for our crassest politicians to come out and utter this falsehood, so, when asked about Obama’s faith, the strategy was to say, “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.”

In fact, that is precisely what Santorum said in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.

This “Obama is a Muslim, maybe” strategy was also on display in Lady Lake, Florida, in January when a woman in the audience called Obama an “avowed Muslim” and Santorum let her remarks pass unchallenged.

Santorum took things a step further on Saturday, however, when he blasted the president for adhering to a "phony theology." The context, oddly enough, was a discussion of oil drilling technology, namely “fracking.”

In an effort to explain why Obama was in his view dragging his heels on this new technology, Santorum said the president was not motivated by “quality of life” issues. “It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology,” he said. “Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology. But no less a theology.”

On Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," Santorum tried to shift the conversation from Obama's faith to the "phony ideal" of "radical environmentalists." "I accept the fact that the president's a Christian," he said,  even as he insisted on questioning Obama's "worldview."

Later on Sunday, at a suburban Atlanta megachurch, he seemed to compare Obama to Hitler while comparing Americans' complacency about Obama today to complacency about the Germans during World War II. "Remember, the greatest generation for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was in darkness," he said. "We think . . . 'This will be okay. I mean, yeah, maybe he's not the best guy after a while. after a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who's not so good of a guy after all."

I will leave it to theologians to explain to me what the Bible says about hydraulic fracturing, to lexicographers to parse the fine distinctions between phony "theology" and a phony "worldview," and to historians (or 5th graders) to distinguish between our president and Germany's Fuhrer, but my point is this: Santorum has crossed a line.

In 2008, he crossed a similar line, but he had not yet announced his run for president, so his remarks went largely unnoticed. In remarks at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, however, he said that our culture war actually a “spiritual war” and that “Satan” was on the march in America.

This “Prince of Lies,” as Santorum called him, was destroying universities, the government and popular culture. But he had also infiltrated mainline Protestantism, which in Santorum's view had ceased to live up to the name of “Christian.” “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles. It is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it," Santorum said.

All this language about the “phony theology” of the president and mainline Protestants is in my view a misguided response to the decision of the Democrats to get right with God after Senator John Kerry’s loss to President Bush in the 2004 election.

Up to and during that election, Republicans were able to cloak themselves in the mantle of right religion and tar the Democrats as the party of the secular left. After 2004, however, the Democrats spoke increasingly about God and the Bible, linking their public policies to longstanding Christian commitments to justice and the poor.

Today Republicans continue to attack Democrats for adhering to the religion of “none of the above,” but such charges are increasingly implausible. So the new charge is not that the Democrats are godless. It is that they are the wrong kind of Christians.

There is considerable debate about what the founders meant when they preserved religious liberty and disestablished religion in the First Amendment. About these meanings (and in my view they were multiple) reasonable people can disagree.

It is also worth debating how far the founders thought religious diversity might go in their new nation. There was some conversation about Muslims and Jews during debates over Constitution's exclusion of any religious test for federal office. Some questioned whether Americans really wanted to allow non-Christians to be president.

There is no debating, however, the fact that the founders insisted on amity among the Christian denominations. In fact, they saw such amity as essential to peace and prosperity in their new republic.

Now Rick Santorum is turning the tables on those 19th century bigots who excommunicated Catholics from the community of the Christian faith. Evangelicals apparently pass muster with him, but not liberal Protestants, who according to Saint Santorum are less Christian than he.

There are doubtless theological discussions to be had here. In fact, Americans have been having them since the Reformation. And if Santorum wants to address a Catholic catechism class about whether Protestants are going to heaven, more power to him.

I also have no problem with Santorum citing chapter and verse from a papal encyclical to explain why he thinks "artificial birth control" is “harmful to women” and "harmful to our society" (as he said in 2006).  You want to give Catholic reasons for your public policies? Knock yourself out. Just don’t expect non-Catholics to agree with them (or many Catholics, for that matter).

Santorum also has every right to argue (as he has repeatedly) that church and state have never been separated in the United States the way some strict separationists would like them to be. But there must be some distinction between what happens in a sermon on Sunday morning and what happens in a presidential debate.

Conservatives in the United States have long spoken on behalf of community values. One of the most venerable values in American public life is religious pluralism.

This tradition of agreeing to disagree in the public square about such matters as the Trinity does not dictate that you check your faith at the door. It does not mandate that we all become moral relativists or theological compromisers. It does insist, however, that we refrain from reducing God to a wedge - which is to say a tool –for our own partisan politics. As any real conservative will recognize, that is not our tradition.

When I look at the shape of politics in this country, I too see that it is a shambles. And when I look at Rick Santorum's recent remarks I see one reason why.

My question for the former Senator from Pennsylvania is not whether he adheres to the right kind of Christianity. My question is whether there is anything he will not say in order to become president. Have you, sir, no sense of decency?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Culture wars • Politics • Protestant • Rick Santorum • Uncategorized • United States

soundoff (796 Responses)
  1. John in Oakland

    There is no need for Santorum to decide anything. His religion already tells him that Catholics are the truest Christians; other faiths are in error to one degree or another. This is an inescapable consequence of any system of belief which pretends to "universal truth."

    February 26, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  2. Terrentius

    I pointed this out to a co-worker, who looked flabbergasted that I would say such a thing - "If catholics use their beliefs to push political agendas, then they should expect for their beliefs to be criticized". Said co-worker was a catholic, and this had not occurred to her. This is scarier, indeed, than the usual atheist dismissiveness of all faith; now, critics would hit Christianity/Catholicism with questions about the Trinity, biblical literalism, papal infallibility, etc. Why do they believe what they do about birth control, contraception, and abortion? Before, they could avoid any criticism whatsoever, simply hiding behind faith - now Santorum and other religious extremists have opened themselves, and their faith to much more piercing and existential questions about Judeo-Christianity itself.

    T.'.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. watash

    What about all the millions that Billy Graham and all the other evangelical hypocrites claimed to have turned into Christians during the mass meetings at football stadiums all over the world? In the nineteen fifties, I was at Tulane stadium during one of Graham's so-called revivals or whatever it was billed as, and watched dozens of beer and whiskey drunk teen agers wobble down and get blessed by the king of charlatans and come back and laugh about it. A chimpanzee could have went forward and Graham would have claimed it as another soldier for Christ. What a bunch of B/S.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  4. leonid7

    What is the difference between 'artificial' birth control and real birth control? Does he believe in 'artificial' anti-biotics or surgery? Because, you know, those aren't natural.

    February 25, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  5. Mike Jones

    With Rick Santorium having injected religion into the Presidential Debate, I thought it was outrageous that John King and CNN did not address this. Their religious views & values clearly drive the way Santorium & Romney would govern if elected. King & CNN let down all of us who tuned in by taking this now especially important topic off the table. Poor journalism. A major lapse. Are we now forced to go to FOX for reportage on this issue?

    February 23, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  6. Peacemaker

    People who JUDGE whether or not someone else is a Christian, have NOT READ the Gospels! IF they had they would know that JESUS warned us NOT TO JUDGE.

    The way Santorum and other holier-than-thou-GOP-candidates speak, there is no way a Jew could be president! Because a Jew is not Christian! The GOP are such hypocrites! God help us.

    February 23, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  7. OregonTom

    RON PAUL 2012

    February 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  8. BL

    Religion is the enemy of spirituality. Religion is all about ritual, dogma, hierarchy, mythology and the idea that you must do something to get somewhere in some indeterminate future. Spirituality is about the immediate; the suspension of intolerance and the interconnection between all living things.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  9. bernie

    Funny how JFK some 50 years ago had to go down south and explain he wouldn't answer to the pope because he wasn't the correct form of invisible man in the sky worshiper as a Catholic. Now the the lunatic evengelicals are ok with Sanatarium being catholic.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • sky

      Thought the same thing yesterday. The Pope might have is first devout Catholic in the Presidency or more likely a corrupt Vatican Government will.

      February 24, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  10. Carlos Ramirez Trevino

    Sad, but EVANGELICAL is quickly becoming synonymous with TALIBAN. All the EVANGELIBANS are missing are the rubber hoses. What a travesty to the Cross of Christ! They have politicized the Cross. But then again, who am I to say?

    February 22, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Educated&Atheist

      The Inquisition is alive and well. IN the sand-lands they stone a blasphemer to death. In USA they are shunned and shouted down. God is pretend, religion is mind control for profit.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  11. Anonymous

    Before he went after the mainline Protestants, he went after "academia", "particularly at the college level" for "pursuing new truths" and "denying the existence of truths." American colleges are the reason why wealth was created in the 20th century. They are the reason why we are the leaders in science and technology. Religious influence in higher education would destroy American wealth and turn our universities into Christian maddrassas.

    I can't believe that this man could be the next President.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      America has not led the world in Tech. Ja.pan is the world-leader. She still remains the only nation that can beat America in war. Nobel Prizes are not the yardstick. If you like you can check what happened to Ford n GM at the hands of Toyota. By the way Madrassas were the first universities.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Chad

      He won't be. Don't fret.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • scottpt1

      pretty scary isnt it

      March 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  12. Tom Howard

    When are the adults in the Republican party going to show themselves and tell these kids to knock the foolishness off? Does any of these candidates have presidential gravitas? Who among them could address the UN General Assembly or the G-20 without being laughed off the stage?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  13. doug

    I hope he wins the nomination. Who knows maybe Jesus will be his running mate. Santrums already decided who gets to meet Jesus anyway.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Grant Gerow

      I suspect he will meet Jesus sooner than later. Mit will give him one between the eyes tomorrow and it will be lights out. Just listening to him is sickening. He is my tool of the day.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  14. Dave

    So, this is where the people afraid that Rick Santorum is going to be president hang out.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Grant Gerow

      Lets just say, it where common sense folts talk about issues. Luv to see Ric win the GOP. I suspect GOP rank and file will flock to the Dems. Especially those with some sence of values.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Stuck in the Middle

      I remember when trolls used to say the same thing about Bachmann, and Palin before that. None of these self righteous idiots has a prayer (pun intended) of being elected President. They just don't have the character.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  15. JR

    And how do you explain Rick's rise in the poles? I can only think that the people have all lost their senses. Or is it "anybody but Mit"?

    February 21, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Brian

      I think it's anybody but Romney. His flip flopping ways and negative campaigning, I believe, have buried him in the nomination process.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Educated&Atheist

      Both ; Rick is a whacko, Mitt is a dolt. Either will be a gift to the people, a fat soft ball for Obama to hit our of the park.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  16. prochristblog

    "My question is whether there is anything he will not say in order to become president. Have you, sir, no sense of decency?"

    Okay, so Obama doesn't do that too or is Obama a highly anointed decent King? What about all the promises of Change in DC? Obama is the biggest hypocrite President EVER (my opinion)! At least Santorum sticks to his message about how "Conservative" he is. Obama said he believes that marriage is defined as Man and Woman and he did not support Gay marriage but recently (now that re-election campaigns have ramped up) he has been saying "he believes that gay couples should be afforded the same rights and privileges as a married couple. Okay so he's for and against Gay marriage or maybe I'm just too slow to understand how smart he is when he sounds like he is for and against something.

    And I doubt Rick Santorum was trying to evaluate how Christian Obama is/was/will be – it was clear he used the term "theology" in the context of "ideology"... poor choice of reference but this is the liberal attempt to make much a do about nothing, which detracts from the horrible record and ridged leftest socialistic behavior and policies of our beloved anointed King Obama!

    And YES Jesus does make it clear in the Bible that it almost impossible for the Rich to come to him (not impossible though), and he favors or challenges Christians to seek the poor, unprivileged, downtrodden, sickly, etc... that's what's so great about the Christian Faith! We are there for the poor... why does it have to be the Government always? Some people are poor because they want to be... as a Church financial administrator in a rural town who gives free counseling and I'm the one they always call, I've seen people who are plenty capable of not being poor but due to lack of personal responsibility they come with their hand out time and time again. So should we pay for the poor but capable always? Should we really turn into a socialist nation? I'm firmly against it and I hope you are too!

    February 21, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Stuck in the Middle

      Be fair, never will you see Obama engage in the kind of pandering and nonsense that Santorum is doing. Never.The trully scary thing is that I think Santorum actually believes what he says.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Michael Murphy

      When People who claim to follow the teachings of Y'shua make statements like you about when is enough enough, remind you to what your Master has said, " There is never enough" or if your eye be evil, your whole body is evil. This statement has lost its translation in modern English but has to do with your generosity or compassion or lack of. Learn from your Master, He never said how Holy he was compared to the admitted serial rapist Newt, or the Mormon Mitt or the Catholic Rick. If you read and understand the book of Revelation it clearly states the Catholic Church is the great Harlot having committed fornication with the kings of the earth. The colors are the colors of the Flag of The Catholic Church and there is only one city in the world that sits on 7 hills Rome. So let me get this right in my mind . You would rather have for president, someone who either belongs to the antichrist religion or converted to them after being a serial rapist. Or a Mormon who believes in another God other then Yahweh and a savior other then Y'shua then to believe in a man who says he believes In Y'shua and is a Father to his children, husband to one wife and tries to help the poor and keep us out of wars and killing. Guess you aren't the great Christian you think you are either

      February 22, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • govspy

      So when it comes to helping the poor as dictated in the bible, you want the government to stay out of the way, and let Christians do the right thing on their own.

      But when it comes to Gay Marriage, you want government to be involved and make the decision for Christians and non-Christians alike, because you claim that is "God's Will"?

      I don't dislike Christians, but I really, really hate hypocrisy, and many Christians make that too easy for me.

      February 24, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • scottpt1

      so you got some lazy people in your town gaming your church...well they are just lazy democrats looking for a handout...that shouldnt surprize a big church elder like you...And mr Santorum isnt afarid to attacj other denominations either...calling the protestants a mess at a speech i watched a couple weeks ago....yeah thank god for the Catholics!!!!

      March 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  17. thomas mc

    But, Santorum is the Antichrist, and Graham is the False Prophet.

    February 21, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  18. Smokey

    Is Santorum really REALLY saying that American Protestants are not Christians? For serious? What a bunch of nutbars we have in this race: a Mormon; a Catholic who says Protestants aren't Christians; a philanderer; Ron Paul; Barack "not a Muslim" Obama...lord save us from politicians.

    February 21, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  19. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out about his frothy activities.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Paul

      Satan sure has a grip on you. When you stand before God in judgement, remember these lines you just put on here and recite them to God and see what He says in response. Won't be good for you, my friend. All of the jokes and blasphemy towards God will not help you get into heaven. It only sends you on the path to hell. Pain and suffering in fire for eternity is personally not the way I want to live out eternity. Good luck!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • perrrob

      @Paul ... you start with the assumption that there is a God. We start with the assumption that there is no such thing.
      All the threats in the world are not going to change the fact that we think you are deluded and believing in an invisible friend is a sure sign of mental illness.

      BTW, what if God is in fact Vishnu, Buddha or Allah? What are you going to tell your Sky Daddy to explain why you were worshipping the wrong God?

      February 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • dd001

      god = Fear to die.
      Anyway, let that guy believe in God if that makes him feel better.

      February 24, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  20. Sean

    Poor Rick, he has so much to learn about faith and religion/

    February 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
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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.