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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. GOP, what's going on?

    The more I learn about Santorum the less I like him. I was planning to vote GOP this time around, but in good conscience I can't vote for Santorum. Why does he have so much support? His views are too extreme. I'm all for good, traditional family values, but this is something else. I hate to say it but I will vote for Obama to stop Santorum!

    February 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Drew

      I think reasonable people of all political backgrounds can agree that Santorum is bat**** crazy

      February 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  2. RudyK35

    It’s interesting that the article would be this long yet fail to provide an example of Santorum saying President Obama is not a Christian, only that President Obama’s policies do not match up with that theology. Perhaps challenges to President Obama’s policies/claims are off limits for this author.
    Was this author equally appalled about the prayer breakfast earlier this month, when President Obama tried to use biblical phrases like “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” out of context as justification for his tax and economic policies? The phrase “phony theology” would be accurate, and perhaps polite in describing that stretch. Yes, the Bible instructs Christians to help those in need who generally cannot help themselves. That’s why you find many churches helping the poor DIRECTLY with food, clothing, gas money, community-based programs, donations of money and labor to people affected by natural disasters, etc. That’s not the same as re-distribution of all wealth. It’s absurd to think that taxing the rich even more through an inefficient government bureaucracy is going to do as much good, even if it were being directed to true areas of need. I’m glad that my doctor makes more money than I do. It is a job that should be filled by an intelligent hard-working person with qualifications much higher than the average person and they should be compensated accordingly. I’m glad that corporate executives (within reason) make more than I do when they are responsible for sustaining a company that employs hundreds or thousands of people.
    Does economic justice mean that if I have 1 car, but my neighbor has 3 cars, that I demand that my neighbor give me one car “in the name of God” so that we both have 2 cars? Of course not! The Bible is clear that we are to help those in need. It is also clear that those who are able to work should do so to provide for their needs. If you wonder what happens when a government makes too many promises and too many people become dependent on government aid, look at Greece.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Your neighbor has three cars?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Drew

      Actually Jesus called for more than a redistribution of wealth; he called for a renunciation of wealth, and that is why it is so pathetic to watch wealthy GOPers cling to Christianity when they are some of the least Christlike people on earth. As far as the prayer breakfast comment goes, I think Obama was just showing that he too could play the Christian game (tedious as it is)

      February 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Drew you are getting off point. Rudy's neighbor has three cars!

      February 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      A Born Ramblin Man.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  3. sam

    Fools like this don't belong in any kind of office – this idiot is an embarassment to society. Any society.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Athanasius

      LOL...that's about as fascist as it get. Because you disagree you say not "I disagree," but "he doesn't belong!" If you disagree, don't vote for him. But when you say he doesn't belong you attack American liberty itself. That's the same kind of argument that people opposed to Obama have been making. On the basis that they disagree with his position as president they say, "he doesn't belong here!" "He's illegitimate!" That's un-American. That's fascist. Santorum IS in our politics. He's a legitimate American..just like Obama is. Fascists, on the other hand, are a threat to us all.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Drew

      No one ever said he was an illegitimate candidate (which tea partiers STILL say about Obama), we just said he shouldn't be in the race ie the electorate will soundly reject him when the time comes

      February 20, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Athanasius

      Yes, he should be in the race. He's an American and has every right to both run for office AND to exercise his religion freely. To say otherwise is anti-American.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** Athanasius

      LOL...that's about as fascist as it get. Because you disagree you say ....

      It is my right to freedom of speech as an American, and you call it fascist, wow.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  4. Iqbal Khan

    Watch all three parts.... and U be the judge....

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBAEk2dBm4E&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLE5DF569AE6F1B725

    February 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Pervert Bishops

      What are we judging? I always thought we weren't suppose to judge... that's God's job.

      February 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  5. Athanasius

    Umm..straw-man anyone? Rick Santorum doesn't decide who is a Christian. God the Holy Trinity does. But that's beside the point. Anyone who has been taught from the sacred scriptures knows that a Christian is called to examine those around him, first and foremost those professing to be Christian, for their fidelity to a righteous life (1Corinthians 5:11-12). Santorum is simply putting the commandments of the LORD into practice. Whether I agree with him or not I applaud him for doing so. God will judge who is right at the end. For now, I'm looking for those with the fidelity to practice what they preach to be leaders. I don't have to agree with everything they do.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Drew

      I think the point was that this sort of discourse has no place in politics, and is frankly an embarrassment to our entire political process. Also, should a Christian really compare Obama to Hitler?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • sam

      His nonsense doesn't belong in our politics.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Athanasius

      @Drew:

      The free exercise of religion, which is a cardinal tenet of American liberty, certainly does allow and include this sort of discourse in the political public square. That's just an attempt to shut Christians up. It's a form of politically-correct censorship. Instead of trying to shut people up, the American thing to do is make your own judgment of the facts as best you can and vote as you wish.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Drew

      I never said he didn't have a RIGHT to say it. As a matter of fact I am glad he said it, because now we all know how insane he is

      February 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Flinders the Butler

      God the Holy Trinity ? I thought Yehweh, the god of the armies did that. So many gods, so little time.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Zeb

    I urge anyone who can to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. In particular, there's a section devoted to Propaganda. It's eerily similar to the demonization rants I hear from the right. We rational secular people should be scared, very scared of these fear mongerers.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  7. hippypoet

    let me just say, i totally back this guy in this endeavor... he is a complete moron and i think he is truly the best man for the job of judging all who claim to be christian to be in fact true christians! 🙂

    February 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  8. Joy of Sin

    I don't see what the big deal is. Why shouldn't Santorum decide who is the better Christian?

    February 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  9. qwerty

    Santorum would never suggest Obama isn't Christian or the "right" kind of Christian.

    He'll simply imply it and let the people who are dumb enough to vote for him jump to their own ignorant conclusions.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Tom

      And by doing so doesn't that say a lot about what kind of Christian Santorum really is?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  10. stylin19

    Mr. Prothero

    I suggest you compare the 2011 WH Christmas message to both the 08/01/20111 WH Ramadan message and 08/11/2011 WH IFTAR dinner speech. Which does Obama know (or care ) more about ?

    February 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Drew

      lolololol

      February 20, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Mark

      You make me laugh, Obama is Christian, his family is Christian – but some of you tin foil cultural warriors just can't let it go, Good, vote for Santorum, please by all means. And Obama will likely win in a landslide. I'm not even a big Obama fan – I just want to see Ricky get rocked.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Anthony

    This is just like a Bigoted Republican, the only way he can win is to scare people into voting for him. If he wants to compare Obama to Hitler, he should look in the mirror for it is he who is trying to impose his ideals and will on the people. If he were to win the Presidency we would fall back in the progress we have attempted to make to not impose our religion and will on any one. It seems to me that Republicans just keep shooting themselves in the foot by constantly trying to dredge up culture wars and class warfare on the voters. This is why I can no longer vote Republican until they stop this idiotic road they are on.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      I'll start by saying I'm an independent. But the dems are the ones who have been bringing up class warfare. "republicans are against the middle class" is basically all I've heard from the democratic side in a while.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Lew

      Please! Obama did worse. He is telling seniors that Republicans want them to die. he tells the poor that the rich want them to struggle. All his speeches are geared towards civil unrest........blame someone else for your problems. Dont blame me the President......Blame the Rich republicans for making your life miserable. I the annointed one will give you all free stuff and you will vote for me. Thats the pathetic president we have. Santorum would be a far better President than Oblamer. I'm not voting for Santorum...I'm voting for Gingrich. But Obama either way has to go.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Drew

      Come on, its crazy to deny that the GOP is less sympathetic to the middle class and poor than Obama is

      February 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      I'm not denying it, I'm just pointing it out

      February 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Drew

      Fair enough, but in that case is it really irresponsible for Obama to call a spade a spade

      February 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** But the dems are the ones who have been bringing up class warfare......

      Wrong.
      Republicans are screaming about wealth redistribution,
      as they suck the life out of the middle class.
      Dems just want that pendulum to swing back to "fair".
      Just look at the tax rates for the rich under Reagan, and look at them now.
      Way out of balance in favor of the rich.
      Its past time to fight back for fairness.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  12. Bisonfan

    Rick Santorum is a true believer. We've grown accustomed to Republican candidates like George W. Bush who veer to the right to win primaries, swerve to the center for the general election, and cut back to the right after taking office. While Santorum may try to mouth the expected clichés about tolerance and diversity, he lacks the duplicity to maintain that posture for longer than a news cycle or two. There are many Americans who think that God gave us freedom of religion strictly for the benefit of those with the right religion, and they would love to cast a vote for theocratic government. It looks like they're going to have that opportunity.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Joe T.

      I would like to think there wouldn't be enough people who believe that to get him elected.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Mark

      It may give a platform for those that firmly believe in...the 11th century, but lets see how he fairs in a general election – I'm betting Obama chews him up and spits out the bones.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  13. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    The first guy who starts selling t-shirts with a big brown splotch on the front is going to make a fortune.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  14. hippypoet

    circular arguments anyone?

    February 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  15. William Demuth

    I am laughing from the belly that people actually reference Satan in the 21st Century.

    We have some MAJOR indoctrination going on in Americas back woods.

    Really people, SATAN?

    Get a grip.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Iran refers to the U.S. as "the great Satan".
      So every religion has to demonize someone. At the very least, they demonize non-believers.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  16. The viking

    "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)

    I'm just saying

    February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Joe T.

      Is this directed to Rick Santorum? If not, it should be.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Is that what the priests tell the altar boys?

      I have a commandment for you: WAKE UP, YOU HAVE BEEN BRAINWASHED

      February 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Mark

      "Just sayin" is one of the dumbest expressions ...why not just say it and be done with it, why waste words?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • just sayin

      just sayin

      February 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Fer sure dude.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  17. MIJohn

    What comes out of Santorum's mouth shouldn't be surprising. He's an example of what happens when a tiny minority gets a lot of money and believe that because someone is different or has different opinions it's okay to break every rule they professes to follow. You get a lot of trash, a lot of fanatical ranting, a whole mess of irrational fear mongering, but zero actual facts or substance.

    What is surprising is that the GOP is treating him with anything less than a ten foot pole fitted with a cattle prod. I knew the GOP had been taking a page from Joseph Stalin's playbook by purging it's ranks of those who weren't extreme enough in their opinions. But purging enough people that the only ones remaining would serious consider someone like Santorum electable? At that point one has to start wondering if the GOP has so thoroughly wrapped themselves up in propoganda that, like Hitler and Stalin, they actively reject anything that doesn't fit their delusion?

    February 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** What comes out of Santorum's mouth ........

      AAAaaaaaaaccckkkkkkk.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Pretty judgemental for a "Christian" aren't you?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • just sayin

      Truth isn't judgement unless you are living a lie.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Tell me something prayer has changed. Be specific, and give hard proof that it was the prayer and not other factors. I'm waiting.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • just sayin

      Prayer changed my life.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      @ just sayin
      How did it change your life? Did you pray then all of a sudden everything was better? Or did you pray but still have to work for the change? Unless it was a miracle, and altered the physical laws of the universe, that's not proof

      February 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • just sayin

      prayer changed my life in that once I was just partly an asshole, but now I have been able to fully realize my true potential to be a bigger asshole than I ever imagined.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Simon Says

      I prayed that you would stop posting.
      It didnt work.
      Go away, you are very annoying.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  19. RKSMichigan

    As far to the right as Santorum is, Obama is to the left. Extremism is either a problem, or it's not.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Drew

      Obama isn't nearly as far to the left as the GOP makes him out to be.

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

      And actually there is a qualitative difference between facism and liberalism

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

      Obama is an extremist? Utter garbage, you might buy into that silly GOP garbage, but to the majority he is a centrist, no where near left.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Naw, you went so far right, you fell off the cliff.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  20. Eric of Reseda

    "When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross" – Sinclair Lewis. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Rick Santorum.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Ronald Reganzo

      The next President of The United States

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

      great quote

      February 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Fair Taxes

      I second that.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Simon Says

      The only thing missing is the mustache.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:08 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.