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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. roger

    I didn't know that Mr. Santorum was running to become Pope. Seriously, though, I thought Jack Kennedy got the United States out of the swamp of confusing politics with main line religion. I'm not talking about the various voices from the Right that seem to have their say every election cycle, apparently unaided by reference to the Bible (aside from a verse or two quoted disturbing out of context). I'm talking about the Republicans and the Roman Catholic Church trying to see which one is smarter at using the other in what amounts to a power play. Neither one will accomplish much, I fear, since faith doesn't have much to do with political posturing and infelicitous generalizations. Faith deals with Truth, as believers come to realize that Truth. I doubt that Mr. Santorum's venture into teasing the mob's feelings will free anybody.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  2. JennyTX

    Didn't Jesus tell his followers to care for the sick and the poor? Then why are so many conservatives opposed to universal health care?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • balanceBee

      Because they are terrified, filled with false information and have no vision of a better USA. They are scared witless thanks to the likes of Rush and Beck and every other scare mongering right winger out there. Maybe they have never seen what health care is like in a civilized society? I get my health care in Mexico whenever possible and yes, it's a lot more civilized there than here on the matter of health care.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  3. Randy, San Francisco

    Is Santorum trying to start up an American Taliban style movement?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  4. CJ

    This is an opinion and one that is one easly made when listening to Santorum. I think his lack of speaking when he should and correcting misconceptions is the same as lying . His speaking in a jugemental way when mentioning Obama's faith is purposefull and meant to cause gullible people to question his faith. The Bible speaks of judging others.
    Santorum is hypocritiacal. I do not want the POTUS to be the pastor in chief!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  5. aaron

    Santorum cracks me up, in that scarey never-want-him-anywhere-near-me kind of way. He says "So now you have the freedom to go into that church and do whatever you want, but once you walk out, you're ours," Santorum said, describing what he sees as the administration's perspective. "You will do what we tell you, not what they tell you."

    His policies are 100 times worse. If it were up to him, there would not be anything but church and you would always be his (or HIS). Obama is doing something for EVERYONE, regardless of religion. Santorum believes in using one religion to rule everyone and everything one does. Ive said if before and I'll say it again...this man is the scariest thing in this country right now. If his name was Mohammed and he was Islamic, he would be an enemy to the US...that what his religous views are like, he just happens to be christian, albeit 12th century christian.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • mkk

      If his name was Mohammed and he was Islamic, he would be an enemy to the US...that what his religious views are like, he just happens to be christian, albeit 12th century christian.
      Agreed, If he were any other ethnic make up we would talking burning at the stake.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Reggie from LA

    The reason that Santorum gets to decide who the "Real Christians" are is because he is better than all the other "said Christians" because he has done everything according to the "plan" and has a JD. He has adhered to all the dogma. He is almost perfect in his...uh ohhh. I Thought none in the flesh are perfect. Remember, our God is a jealous God. No need to be afraid, bwahaha!!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  7. obamayakyak

    Barry O was telling us last week that Jesus would fund all of Barry's schemes. So who is the real culprit ?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • aaron

      that is obviously a response to the crazy religous nut jobs. they scream about religion all the time and Obama was like, "oh ya? you want to REALLY believe in religion...Jesus would help the poor, the suffering. he would not like the rich and powerful taking advantage like they do." Yes, im sorry for you, but, Jesus would be a Democrat before a Republican't.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • mark99er

      No different then th 100 of thousands murdered by the neo-con adminstration of Bush & Cheyney!!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Greg s

      You dont have a clue do you! Jesus is about salvation, he wouldn't take sides here at all, To Jesus its always been about salvation. You Godless Liberals dont get it. Its all about the next life, In this one we need to only find Salvation everything else is third and forth, Love God with all your heart, Love your neighbor with the same love you give the Lord,
      Liberals Love themselves to much to fit God in there, Too Bad!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Guess you dont understand sacrasm.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  8. Ms Winston

    Yes, Saint Santorum represents the values of some Americans, but I truly believe that most people are smart enough to reject this Savanarola in a sweater vest. The more I hear his asinine comments (the latest his diatribe against pre-natal testing), the more convinced I am that if by some evil chance he were to be elected president it would take this country decades to recover from his influence. If he is the GOP nominee - Vote Democratic!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Greg s

      Maybe this man needs to figure out for himself first what a Christian is, A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only way to heaven is by believing That Christ died on the cross for our sins and why. Mormons do not believe this so they are not Christians.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  9. Brian

    for sure another liberal slanted article. Rick Santroum will make a fine president. I don't even read CNN news pieces or watch it on tv anymore the ratings speak for themselves you guys should feel real proud keep it up your doing a terrific job. Just a matter of time until Obama and this socialist regime of his are long gone, Thank god. Santorum 2012!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • gerald

      Amen.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Greg s

      This article was written by a Liberal for Liberals, Who have no clue what a Christian is. So how could they have a Clue of what the difference between a Mormon and a Christian is.
      To a Liberal any Excuse to abort a child is a good excuse. But that is exactly how a Godless person sees the world.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • mark99er

      Let us know when he puts the Pope on as the VP on the ticket!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • J.W

      A Christian is someone who believes in God and believes Jesus is their savior. What makes you think someone cannot be liberal and believe that, especially when Jesus himself was a liberal?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Jessieandjake

      Are you the Brian from Monty Python's "Life of Brian"?

      "oh it's blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I'm glad they're getting something, They have a hell of a time."

      Remember, always look on the bright side of life.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Simon Says

      **** I don't even read CNN news pieces ...............

      You dont ?
      So, what do you call this ?
      Very un-christian of you to lie.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  10. obamayakyak

    Santorum is correct. Prothero as usual is full of crap.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • mark99er

      Santorum is a moron!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • mark99er

      Santorum is an idiot!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Simon Says

      obamayakyak

      Santorum is full of crap.

      Fixed that for you.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  11. mkk

    So a candidate that preaches, judges, skews but doesn't talk about the real issues. Instead he only wants to talk about what will get a rise....Does he protest so much that we take our eyes off the real issues? Or that he is hiding a mighty secret himself? This man is a gift for Obama and I think I like that religion. No...he's not a Muslim, old news, yes Obama's a Christian and that's his business not up for discussion. I want someone that can put people back to work, have the stock market posting hope, jobs gaining in states.....Oh, we already have someone like that. Thank you Mr. Obama. I know you have a long way to go and yes you did say it would take time. I will be looking forward to the next five years of you working things out. So Santorum...keep up the schpeel. You don't have a chance in hell of making it.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • DJM3

      MKK,
      Obama was raised Muslim, he was raised by Marxists and Black Nationalists. Obama has stated over and over that he intended to "change" America. Obama is a leftist and an anti Capitalist and the biggest Liar we have ever had in office. ANY OFFICE. Obama and his wife are elitists and just like Stalin, feel they have the right and authority to make unconsitutional changes and by his own words "He will not follow the laws if he does not like them"

      So take your biggoted trip out of here and be worried. ANYONE who has thier eyes open and who does not rely on the liberal media (who has said nothing about the 90% rise in Gas prices since he came into office) Obama has done exactly what he said he was going to do, he is about "fundimental change" meaning enacting his leftist Black Nationalist agenda on the USA. That will not happen and we, the REAL 99% will vote him out

      February 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • J.W

      I think he is a possible homer s3xual

      February 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • J.W

      So Obama is only going to get 1% of the vote in the coming election? Wow that will be a new record.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • mkk

      DJM3....how does it feel to live in the stone age? With those knuckles rubbing on the ground it will be hard to vote. Apparently you haven't kept up with the 21st century fact checking. It's quite laughable how ignorant you can be in this day and age.Thanks I needed that.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  12. Ran

    I'm totally disspointed with Rick Santorum. I thought he has some decency...

    February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Greg s

      If you compare him to the liar that is our president then he does!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. R. Santorum

    I'M OFF MY MEDS GUYZZZZZZZZ!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  14. bill

    this is garbage! journalism? if it is opinion, put the alternate opinion alongside it. i have the least amt of respect for cnn of any news source. why would i trust a journalist who thinks all roads lead to God. it might be PC but it's illogical.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. gerald

    Funny how those who consider themselves of superior intelligence to me on this thread seem to only be able to post ad hom. Not a single thought of any consequence comes from them. I suspect they are at the school computers in junior high school during study hall or maybe at the library.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Greg s

      Liberals feel they are intellectually superior to everyone else but then they open there mouths and opps we read the truth.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's "their" mouths. And it's "oops".

      Your point, dumbkopf?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Ben

      Greg... I don't feel like I'm superior to anyone else until I read you comments. Then I feel better knowing that I am smarter, nicer, and more honest than at least some people.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  16. CC

    I for one truly hope this jack ass gets the GOP nomination, because there's no way americans (sic) would elect this religious moron.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • DJM3

      CC,
      Why is it that you leftist "Idiots" never allow a Christina the right to be Christian? Do I scare you that much? Why is it just fine with you that people of your ilk can debase and debauch my religion but if I speak out about being your feeling the "right" to your racist biggoted views all over because I am the only "minority" being a white Male Christian conservative who can be "hated"?

      You leftist's need to move over because the REAL 99%, you know, the silent MAJORITY, is waking up and you and your followers are the real 1%

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Greg s

      Im afraid your in for a surprise, there are far more conservatives in this country then Liberals, One plus for Abortion, Liberals abort much more often the Conservatives, So your killing yourselves off...I guess you can make lemonade out of Lemons, But anyway those turn coats who voted for that Liar last time aren't about to do it again, Obama and Jimmy Carter are gonna have another thing in common other then being a tool for the Iranians.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's "you're", Einstein.

      Really, do keep telling us all how bright conservatives are.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Simon Says

      ** Why is it that you leftist "Idiots" never allow a Christina the right to be Christian?

      Why bring Christina into this ?

      February 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  17. Ronald Reganzo

    Three words that will put the fear of God in an atheists cold heart and cause qu eers to run for cover .... 1. President 2. Rick 3. Santorum

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  18. Uncle Baire

    Whatever happened to "The separation of Church and State?" That was a myth also. LMAO!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  19. J.W

    Is there any good reason why anyone would vote for this guy?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • be careful

      He isn't Mitt Romney.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • DJM3

      JW, there is only one reason, BEDCAUSE HE IS NOT BARACK OBAMA.
      I WILL VOTE FOR ANYONE BUT OBAMA

      February 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  20. joan

    christians are not supposed to judge. Bleased are the poor in spirit, not the Haughty

    February 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • DJM3

      Joan,
      Why are do you think Santorum is judging anyone? All he is doing is being a Christian? Why is it OK for non Christians to judge him? "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." Proverb 8:32, Proverbs 19:16, Luke 8:21, John 13:16, Revelation 1:3
      My God is so much more important than who is President

      February 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Greg s

      The only difference between a Christian and godless Liberals is Christians are forgiven, were as Godless liberals are not, Christians Are aware of there sins and do our best at trying not to sin, Godless liberals sin willy nilly and dont give a hoot!
      So there we have something in Common Christians sin Godless Liberals sin, Christians are forgiven, Godless Liberals are not.....Its why Christ died on the Cross.....Yea there was reason for that...... 🙂

      February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's "whereas", genius. You weren't the class valedictorian, were you? Any reason you're capitalizing random words, like "lemonade" and "are" and "common"?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Simon Says

      *** Greg s

      The only difference between a Christian and godless Liberals is Christians are forgiven, were as Godless liberals are not, Christians Are aware of there sins and do our best at trying not to sin...............

      Christians put money in the plate every Sunday,
      so they can go on sinning, and feel good about it.
      Nice racket ya got there.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:19 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.