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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. Mike P

    If somebody says, "I'm a Christian," and has never said or done anything to make that clearly untrue, but at the same time has never said or done anything to make it true beyond a doubt, the best thing you could say when asked if that person really is a Christian is, "I don't know."

    March 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    March 6, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  3. Mary From Baltimore, MD

    I was under the impression that Catholics were not considered Christians by some Christian sects. Some go as far as saying they are in league with Satan. This is what I was told by some Christians I met and not only that they told me that my baptism in the Catholic church was not valid. Of course, I didn't believe what they said, but these sects seem to be mysteriously quiet right now.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  4. akmac64

    Regarding religion: anyone with knowledge of the world and religions knows that religions are created by man, to serve man's purposes. A god or gods are treated like waiters at a restaurant, as people pray their "gimmee" prayers. Both sides in war claim that a god is on their side, even when it is the same god on both sides. To claim that a human or human policies have the stamp of approval of a god is arrogant and blasphemous. Claiming that a book written by men is a holy book written by a god, because said book said it was written by a god, is circular reasoning of the worst sort. We are allowed if not guaranteed, to have whatever beliefs we choose, but to say that your belief is the ONLY one that counts is strictly opinion, not reality. A few years back a "christian" spokesman declared that the prayers of Jews are not heard by his god, neglecting the fact that his savior was reportedly a practicing Jew, as were most of the early Christians. Later on, imperial Rome took over the church, then selected and edited the gospels to increase the power of Rome and the church, not a god. Since the First Commandment prohibits multiple gods, the Romans promoted Jesus to "Lord" equal to or greater than the Father. Religions have been used and abused by men for power and control for thousands of years.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • Earthling

      Bravo, sir. Well put.

      March 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • dave

      Some police men and judges are corrupt - therefore the law does not exist
      some teachers molest students - therefore knowledge does not exist
      some religious people do bad things - therefore God does not exist

      March 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  5. Laverne

    Santorum is such a hypocrite, he abolishes people from getting a college education, yet he himself have 3 degrees and will make sure his children get a college degree. The sad part about it is there are people who will take that load of crap to heart. He speaks in a manner that I personally can't believe he is a a Christian, but I guess I will have to take him at his word! To be honest, I don't think Rick Santorum is wrapped to tight and everything he opens his mouth he confirms it!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Momof3

      Santorum doesn't think all people should be able to get a college education, he thinks that degrees should only be reserved for a specific group of people...namely, the rich.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  6. dinak

    Why should Obama decide what's "fair" in life?

    February 29, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  7. sad_about_politics

    Sadly it seems that if you are running for office your real interest is in power. The religious comments that you issue are just a tool to support your ambition. This seems to be true for depublicans or democrats.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  8. Pasquale Barletta

    But, But I thought Frothy Scrotorum Was God,.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  9. J. D. Hunter

    The Oval Office is not going to be the Sanctum Santorum. ©2012

    February 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  10. just sayin

    Prayer has been the most life changing activity in history. The knowledge of Gods Truth is given to mankind through Godly prayer.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer has been the most life changing activity in history. The knowledge of Gods Truth is given to mankind through Godly prayer."

      –The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • RobertC

      The main benefit of prayer is the time it consumes, preventing the faithful from activity that could cause actual harm.

      March 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Earthling

      In a drought, if enough people pray hard enough and long enough, the rains will come. The same thing will happen in the absence of prayer.

      March 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  11. Bhavin

    Santorum is an idiot. Anybody voting for him is an idiot.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Jon

      Let's face it. If Jesus were to come back again tomorrow he would be hanging out with the poor and the homeless and the things he would say would scare and anger "Conservative Christians" and Rick Santorum and the people just like him would be the first people to put him right back up on that cross.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • Jesus

      Thanks Jon–right on buddy!

      February 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  12. Bee

    The author makes extremely good points, but the comments seem to have missed the message. The point is that Santorum has no qualms about spreading innuendos about the President. While claiming to be a Christian himself, he thinks nothing of speaking in an unChristian way about Mr. Obama. If Rick is such a Christian, why doesn't he act like one? Christianity is supposed to be inclusive. Christians are supposed to love their neighbors (other people) as they love themselves. Where's the love, Rick?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • JB

      The problem is that Santorum IS acting like a Christian.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Jesus

      ...and where is the humility? Didn't I mention this on the Mount of Olives way back when? Hold on a sec...gotta check my notes.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  13. Irene

    Just because Santorum is a Catholic doesn't mean he is taking anything away from other Christians. He knows Christians have a lot in common with Catholics.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  14. Irene

    Sean, God knows you were being greedy when you asked for a million dollars.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  15. Irene

    Catholics and Orthodox christians are from the first Christian religions. All others broke away from these churches.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  16. Judy in MO

    Santorum is not a Christian either. I googled his name and do you know what one of the first results I found said? It was disgusting. This country is such a sinful place and I think there are very few of us real Christians left!

    February 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Jesus

      Try to be a little less prideful, exclusive, and judgmental. You may identify as one of my followers, but that doesn't make you better than anyone else. My Dad made all of you. Please stop disparaging his work. Now sell everything you own and give it to the poor.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  17. sharon

    I think a true Christian is known by his or her actions and how he or she actually LIVES his or her life. He or she would imitate Jesus. Talk is cheap.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      The last true Christian died on a cross.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Jesus

      Aw shucks. True as it is, people can still TRY to follow my example. But gosh, folks are so prideful nowadays. Everyone wants to identify as part of an exclusive group so they can think of themselves as better than other people. Foolishness.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  18. Buddha2112

    TAX all SuperPACs! I mean churches!

    February 27, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    February 27, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • kenny

      Praying is like a rocking chair – it`ll give you something to do, but won`t get you anywhere.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Pass me another can of spam please. Made from 100% troll meat!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • SeanM

      I prayed for a million dollars I didn't get it. Was I doing it wrong?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • just sayin

      SeanM
      Yes.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Jesus

      You've been proven wrong it's a waste of time. –The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  20. bess

    Why is it, Catholics think theirs is the ONLY
    religion. So stupid!

    February 27, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • small 'c' christian

      Sorry, bess, but Catholics have no monopoly on that type of thinking. One of the biggest issues with most any organised religion is their attempts to make the rest of us believe that THEY have all the answers. I have attended Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon and other churches in my lifetime, and one thing that just about all of them have in common is the desire to recruit more members. And one way they do this is to promise answers that other churches cannot provide. As a result, the seperate 'sects' of Christianity each believe that they are indeed the only true religion. The 'inclusiveness' of the original message has long been lost.

      March 5, 2012 at 3:31 am |
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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.