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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. Robert M. Simon

    It is not "religion" that has injected itself into the campaign,it is our over-grown,over-taxing,over-regulating fat ass government that refuses to respect religious freedom.....

    February 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Joe T.

      As soon as they start shutting down churches and burning Bibles I will agree with you. Last time I checked, we are all free to worship how we please.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Religious freedom?

      The terms contradict each other.

      As the years pass, and your cult goes the way of ALL the others that came before it, you will see that for many Americans, the only freedom of religion, is freedom FROM religion.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Don

      If religion has not tried to inject itself into politics, then why has it? It seems to me that religion has played a larger and larger role in the last several election cycles and is now appearing to devour us. I can't imagine how paranoid one must be to believe that government is trying to somehow control religion.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • stta

      The government does allow religious freedom. Anyone can believe what they want. People can believe what they want. All they are saying is that a church and people of a church can't impose their beliefs on others. I don't see a problem with that.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • stylin19

      "The government does allow religious freedom."...you ARE joking , right ?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • stta

      If people were a truthful about religious freedom, they should not care what religion the President or any politician. Those saying they want religious freedom really want religious dominance. I love it when arguments actual disprove themselves once they are actually thought through and come full circle.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Jeff

      JoeT, you mean the individual mandate that every individual must purchase insurance, unless you are exempt by odummy. The idiot who took that little girls sandwich and made her eat processed out of box chicken nuggets. You mean the government raids on local farmers selling raw milk because the big bro says it's not good for you. Perhaps the farmers in Cali that were denied water for their crop which ruined their livelihood. I could go on and on. And before you say this has nothing to do with religious beliefs...Stop!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Christian Paranoia.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  2. Don

    To many (probably most, actually) Americans, Rick Santorum is the worst candidate that the republicans could offer us. He appears lost in the pe-enlightenment world and an anachronism. His views are narrow, calamitous, and not worthy of a candidate running for serious office.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Isn't it great!!

      Makes all Thiests look like crazy people.

      He forwards the secular agenda every time he opens his mouth!

      February 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  3. stta

    I am not sure which is scarier, what Santorum says or the people that like what he says. He is a person of constant contradiction and hypocrisy. If he wants to keep the government out of the church he needs to keep the church out of government. I grew up in as a Catholic and found those that to me were great Christians who were responsible and giving and I found those that were selfish and self serving. I have been out of the church for a while but every time I think of going back, talk like that of Rick reminds me of those selfish, self serving and I can't go back. I just have a different idea of what a Christian is. I guess I would be considered a passive Christian leading by example and teaching instead of forcing it upon others.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  4. Joe T.

    Awwwww shucky ducky! Bring back Herman Cain! 9-9-9! Now that man was entertaining. Santorum is just scary insane.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • GodPot

      can you say ..."uzbekibekibekistanstan...?"

      February 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Joe T.

      I can but if you ask me who the president is, I'll say "I don't know. Do you know?" I would prefer a President who goes by the Pokemon movie than his radical idea of what the Bible says.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  5. DJR

    If one wants to spell out Christianity I guess one would first have to say have you actually read the BOOK? Hydraulic fracturing lexicographying? The book would ask if its harmful, poisonous, life destructful, what is the cause and effect. Is it for profits only? And yes the BIBLE addresses that a lot! What's being seen and sensed by the right is GOD's physics, there is effect to lawlessness, and a country who prescribes not to GOD is a country of infidels. Islam are the children of Ismael, covered in the BIBLE. America is in the process of deciding who they are. The President is doing his best to lead the nation into infidel status. Pointing a finger at us and saying so will be truth if we continue down the present road.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Don

      "The President is doing his best to lead the nation into infidel status"

      How did you ever come up with such an analysis?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Good God man, you are paranoid!

      The Bible is FANTASY, and no more relevant to todays world than rteruns of I Dream Of Jeanie.

      Your beliefs are obsolete.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • stta

      And there comes a comment from the scary. Is this from the world of David Koresh or Jim Jones?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  6. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    Ha ha. Just call him Rectal-Rick.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  7. Religion and Politics DO Mix

    There is a ridiculous edge to this article and to the overwhelming responses regarding Santorum's views. Ok – so he is a strong Catholic. Big deal. People who are often too passionate about their beliefs tend to get criticized as if there is something wrong with them. I don't think a passionate socialist would get the same treament. The author says that "Santorum crossed the line..." Really? What line? The society that kicks out absolutes for individual relativism now complains that some peoples' relative ideals are unacceptable. This is absurd. If you don't like his views, don't vote for him. But don't say that he does not have the right to say what he thinks in a debate. Sure I would like to see a change and return to respectful political discourse in this country but that will not happen. The tone as well as super-pac money is sending our cruise-ship poltiical process too close to shore.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Joe T.

      Santorum is free to believe whatever he wants. It's just when his religious beliefs start dictating policy that effects everybody, is when we have a problem.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Don

      Although I am not Catholic, most of my acquaintances are. I find myself quite often the one in a conversation defending the Catholic Church since I remember some of the very stirring and libera (yes, that's right LIBERAL), leanings of many Catholics in my earlier years.

      I know the Pope would like this to be so, but there are many types of Catholics. Santorum is representative of the very worst the religion has to offer.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • William Demuth

      A strong Catholic would be calling for the prosecution of the Pope for his complicity in child buggery.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • stta

      Is that a backhanded way of calling President Obama a passionate socialist that nobody is making a bid deal of. The socialist argument is a weak name calling just to scare. Showing some respect and empathy for all is not really that bad an idea unless your totally self serving and selfish and don't believe in a civilized society.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • GodPot

      "Religion and Politics DO Mix" just like poop and pasta...

      February 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • GodPot

      "...now your'e sure thats a meatball...right?"

      February 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ben

      You... are missing the point. He's allowed to say all this stuff. We just think that it makes him a terrible candidate for presidency, and we are exercising OUR right to free speech by saying it. We have problems with his views, not with the fact that he chooses to express them. They would be wrong and dangerous even if he didn't say them on national TV.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  8. farwestdude

    Well argued essay. It seems that Rick Santorum increasingly has to explain or walk back from yesterday`s comments. He is typical of the extreme right conservative Christians who can and do say what ever they want (think Palin and Bachman) and then have to try and clarify these ridiculous comments. That any thinking American would consider voting for this candidate is very scary indeed.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  9. Daniel

    I suggest that Santorum read the entire New Testament of the Bible...And pay particularly close attention to the words in red that Jesus said...After he's finished...I expect him to apologize for the many errors he has made in his Presidential campaign...The biggest one of them all...is of course trying to use Jesus Christ as a political tool...Shame on Santorum!...Shame on him!

    February 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Copy and paste prayer nut is back.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  11. Ronald Reganzo

    President Santorum, get used to saying it.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

      If Santorum becomes president he will criminalize masturbation. Then what are you going to do? Sneak into Canada everytime you want to play with yourself?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Ronald Reganzo

      Guantanamo ain't full yet. Plenty of room for your kind.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Civil War Two has SUCH a nice ring to it!

      As I recall, we whooped you hillbillies the last time!

      February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Don

      I think a better question is what would Santorum do with himself?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      President Obama sounds better.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  12. JWR

    Without having 12 – 15 kids, Rick wants all to believe he and his wife are not using some form of birth control.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • William Demuth

      He should have.

      I do NOT want to be stuck feeding his daughter for the next 80 years.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  13. Bill

    What is truly sad is that this religion crap has become THE most important topic in presidential politics, while the TRULY IMPORTANT issue – the issue that will eventually destroy us if not solved (the national debt) takes a back seat. But politicians are realists and they know they have to pander to a national full of idiots who believe in invisible men in the sky. How pathetic that we as a specie still believe in that tripe.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  14. hmmmm

    will not the devil come in "righteous" robes? santorum, palin, limbaugh, bauchman. 666.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Bo

      Yes, that is a little ambiguous, and funny, but when Satan comes ie will be a lot more clever than Santorum or any other human. He will teach a false doctrine that appears to be righteous truth, so much so that I think that he will be able to convince atheists of his evil teachings, but that doesn't matter, he already has them in his "basket", but they would be extra "tools" to use to convince others of his wicket ways.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Bill

      There is no Satan you simple minded moron.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  15. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    A freak whose name has become synonymous with an anal discharge...

    February 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  16. scieng1

    An interesting article of hate and desception from the author. Santorum made appropriate comments showing the difference in philosophies between modern environmentalism that serves to save the earth by harming people, and a philosophy that is based on helping people toward responsible prosperity. Obama has used environmentalism to cut jobs, promote poverty, reduce living standards, and reward the rich. Santorum opposes this with a philosophy of promoting all people equally by advancing freedom, education, and jobs.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Joe T.

      Santorum hasn't been running on a jobs platform. He's been running on a platform of social change. Name one thing he has said would help the job situation in America.

      I find it hard to believe that you honestly think Santorum will increase freedoms. Yeah, maybe he will increase freedoms... for white Christians (as long as they are the right kind of Christian). Everybody else is fracked.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      The mind is a terrible thing to waste.
      You may as well flush yours.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  17. Bo

    I believe form the Biblical prophecies, that there will come a day when the American government will “try" to enforce false Christian religious beliefs and teachings on the people. I do not believe this will be the work of God, but the work of Satan, but God has told us what will happen so that we will know what to expect. Because it takes a very minium of 12 Bible studies to understand these prophecies, there is no way I would attempt it on this forum. Maranatha.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Joe T.

      Minimum of 12 bible studies? Can you say coo-coo?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Bo

      Perhaps studying eight grade logic ONCE might better serve you and your country than a thousand bible classes.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bill

      Religious whack jobs like you scare me Bo.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • some dude

      Watch out for dem evil Wicket Ways! Sticky wickets at that!

      February 21, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      **** I believe form the Biblical prophecies, that there will come a day when the American government will “try" to enforce false Christian religious beliefs and teachings on the people......................

      His name will be Rick Santorum.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  18. Zach

    If you look at the polls it seems most Republicans want an ultra-conservative nominee. If they choose
    Santorum they will have one, but there is no way Santorum will convince the rest of America to vote
    for him in November. Obama won't even have to campaign and will win by one of the biggest landslides
    in American history.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  19. rock woman

    People who go around saying they know what Satan is doing should perhaps consider the possibility that they "know" because the prince of lies has put thoughts into their heads and words into their mouths.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • momoya

      Oh my... you really believe in a devil, don't you?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ben

      Ummm... Asking people to consider whether they really "know" seems so, so wrong in this context...

      February 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Satan

      BOO!!!!

      February 21, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  20. Jstic

    The more I hear about Santorum, the scarier the idea of him even being nominated becomes. Is the Republican party so blind to the ideals and beliefs of the average American that they would even consider a guy like this? Scary.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Zach

      Yes, it seems a lot of Republican voters are so blind, and yes it is scary.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:14 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.