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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. Jack

    It would be very pleasing to me if Santorum choked to death on a corn dog.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • steve

      That would not be fair to the corn dog.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      I knew corn dog. And he is NO CORN DOG.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  2. Brian

    I don't need Santorum to point out the obvious. Obama is a not a real Christian. I would rather him be honest and just admit that he does not follow any religion than lie for votes.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • mike l

      And just who is a "real Christian," Brian. Who determines who a real Christian is. I know many folks who don't attend church who are more Christian than those who go each week. Who are you to say Obama is not a real Christian and who the heck is santaliban to say that he is? From all I've read on Jesus, he would have nothing to do with the likes of ricky boy. I believe He used the term "whited sepulchres" to describe pompous asses like him.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Louis

      not in your eyes or Rick's and that's what's scary only you 2 can say who is and isn't

      February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Jessieandjake

      Brian, you are just like your mother in your movie life of . . .

      Remember when she points out to the 3 wisemen . . . "What are you doing creeping around a cow shed at two o'clock in the morning? That doesn't sound very wise to me.

      See, obvious! Remember stay on the sunny side of life.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Obama's religion his his business.
      He is running the country,
      not running for pope.
      He says he is a christian, since you dont believe that
      you call him a liar.
      How christian of you.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  3. Jeff

    Ask yourself this question. What has your God done for you? We are pretty much in the exact same position now as all past civilizations. History repeats itself. No God is going to save you or destroy you. We, the human race do it to ourselves.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  4. TOm

    Santorum is a kook. This country was founded on the basis of the separation of church and state and that guy can't get it right. I need him preaching to me like we need to get involved in another war. He will crash and burn. Let him win the nomination – see how that turns out. Right wing Christian fascists, oops, I mean fanatics.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. Wil in LA

    Jesus was a liberal.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Paul

      Jesus most certainly is a liberal, and if anyone would take the time to read the entire Sermon on the Mount, they could see just how much He would treat most of the clergy today, like the jewish priests and scribes in that time.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  6. cmb

    Catholic for Obama.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  7. OS Bird

    Jus tthink how much LESS hate and murder and misery there would be in this world if people would just not worry about everyone else's religion. A little consideration and tolerance and common courtesy would go a long way. Y'all just start practicing what you preach. What do you say? I know I'm wasting my time mentioning this, but I still have to. It's just so SIMPLE!

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

      Unfortunately liberal tolerance only goes as far as someone agrees with a liberal.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Matt

      Apparently you have forgotten the principles on which this country as founded. Our forefather would no longer 'tolerate' religious oppression and were looking to enjoy religious freedom. Not to mention – this country would not exist as we know it if our forefathers just 'tried to get along' with their neigbhors.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Unfortunately christian tolerance only goes as far as someone agrees with a christian.

      Works both ways, dont it.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  8. Juan in El Paso

    It didn't take long for the liberal media dogs to go after Santorum just like they did Cain! How sad that so many people take eavery word CNN spews out as the truth. It was simply amazing to watch the news stories gather momentume as soon as there was a different front running. I think the establishment, both sides, want Mitt and anyone else must be destroyed.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Lol.

      Shut up, you illiterate insect.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Juan in El Paso

      You said, "I think the establishment, both sides, want Mitt and anyone else must be destroyed."
      If any media outlet wants a republican as President they will be rooting for Mitt Romney. Going after Cain and Santorum actually helps the GOP as those two jokers are unelectable.

      Democrats would love nothing more than the king of the tin foil hat crowd to be on the republican ticket. Please do select Santorum as your candidate. May I suggest Cain for VP? That would be nice and inclusive.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Rob

      instead of complaining in generalities that show no signs of intelligence, how bout you argue against an actual point he makes in the article. Dumb

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • mike l

      Funny how when the media reports truthfully the idiot remarks of sanctorum, Romney, Cain and the rest, it's because the press is against them. Yet, the conservatives rejoice whenever the media dumps on Obama. The truth is not liberal or conservative. It's just the truth and sometimes truth hurts. The truth is...sanctorum is an idiot who believes he is God's gift to the USA. Wrong.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  9. SouthernFriedInfidel

    Here's what I think is a big part of this story, and few people seem to notice it: Santorum starts comparing presidential theologies, and I can't help but wonder how far off IS an American theocracy? Too many people are so used to the idea that the President should be deeply religious, apparently to the point that he's no longer expected to have a governing PHILOSOPHY. Now it's just natural for him (or her) to gave a governing THEOLOGY. Sounds way too Middle-Eastern for this atheist's liking, to be honest.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Gerry Daley

      You are absolutely right. People like Santorum and others on the Right do not seem to see that their version of Sharia law – that is all it is – is just as distasteful to most Americans as Sharia would be. If I wanted to live in a theocracy than I would move to Iran. Interesting as well what parts of their Bible Santorum and his fellow travelers choose to ignore.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  10. Ed

    In discussions with friends and colleagues, we are confounded if not worried about the views of Mr. Santorum. If taken to the limit, we will turn back the clock on racial and ethnic harmony and acceptance at least a hundred years. There is a principle in behavioral psychology that is often identified as "projection".

    If you ever want to see the true threat posed or the underlying character flaws of an individual, especially a politician, apply the criticism and attack language of the defamer (in this case Santorum) to him. He is a troubling personage in a time when we need to work together to overcome differences and ensure that economic oppotunity is available to everyone.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  11. anonymous

    According to some evangelical groups, Catholicism is not Christian but that's a moot point.

    Santorum the Sanctimonious does not have the right to judge but he sets himself up as the Grand Inquisitor:

    I think Santorum needs to read: Matt 7:1-5

    Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • john

      That scipture is not saying to not judge, it is saying to not judge if you are doing the same thing that you are criticising another for doing. ie: i secretly cheat on my taxes but judge another person for cheating on their taxes. If you take that scipture the way you present it I could not criticise (judge) my friend for abusing alcohol or cheating on his wife or planning to harm someone else.
      This is a highly misinterpreted scripture.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • J.W

      I disagree john. I believe that scripture means to worry about your own shortcomings before someone else's. For instance I should not worry about someone being an adulterer if I am a thief.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  12. Barry Marson

    If God is in Sanitorium, then I would hate to hear the Devil speaks. Keep this Ayatolla from the white house.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  13. Ed Zachary

    I guess if Santorum says he's a Christian, he's a Christian, but he sounds a lot more like a false prophet to me.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  14. Mark B.

    Jesus Himself said a tree is known by the fruit it bares. If YOU think President Obama believes that the ONLY way to heaven is through Jesus who also said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man comes unto the father except through Me" and that the president has recieved Christ as his one and only salvation, then indeed, You think he is a Christian. If you disagree with any of that or the president does, well then, his Christianity is NOT Biblical.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If Santorum's an example of a "Biblical Christian", I wouldn't vote for a Biblical Christian if the alternative was an atheist.

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

      Oh, and typical of the ignorance of the thumpers, you wrote about the "fruit it bares."

      Try and figure out why I'm laughing at you.

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

      IF you really think that all people who do not fit that description are going to hell for sure, you are a deluded and disgusting individual- basically drowning in prescribed arrogance.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  15. Ralph100

    Santorum going after Obama is a switch he usually goes after women and Mitt Romney. I believe he thinks women are too stupid to be Christians without a man's help. Of course he thinks Mitt Romney isn't worthy to live because he is Mormon. Going after Obama is new for him looks like he is trying to get everything out of it he can.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  16. mightyfudge

    NO ONE knows what happens when we die, and ANYONE claiming such knowledge is a LIAR who probably wants your money. End of debate.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Mark B.

      The risen Jesus Christ appeared to over 500 people after His resurrection. Many of those people died proclaiming Him the one true God. His word is stll the most influential book ever written and is God-breathed, yet you who can do nothing on your own think YOU have the answers. That is foolishness beyond belief.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How do you know he appeared to 500 people? Got another source besides the Bible?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • NoGr8rH8r

      What do you mean no one knows what happens when we die? We know exactly what happens! It's the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue. Oh......your talking about , The SOUL. lolololololololololololololololololol ! Keep dreaming of an afterlife as your real one slips away, fool.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      The risen Jesus Christ appeared to over 500 people after His resurrection......

      Bet the acid was bad.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Mikey

      No Jesus was not a god to those who followed him at the time of his death. He was not deified until Nicea, and it was voted on!!! He was regarded as a wise Rabbi, not a god.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. NoGr8rH8r

    Ex-Catholic for Obama : )

    February 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • DJM3

      No Greater Hater? Ex Catholic but CHRISTIAN for anyone but Obama 😉

      February 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Mr Chihuahua

    Mr Santorum, YOU SUCK lol!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  19. stevie68a

    You can be against abortion and not be a christian. This divisive nonsense from Santorum weakens religion. It is time for the
    world to wake from the delusion of religion. mostly because it isn't true. We are in a New Age, and what most christians were
    brainwashed with as children, now seems quaint, and downright phony. The world needs to grow up.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • DJM3

      Just keep spouting your hate Stevie. I love the fact that I, a White, Male, Middle aged Conservative Christian am one of the very few people who it is OK to be bigoted against. Why is that Stevie? Why is it that you can call me all kinds of names, spit on my faith, hate me for my beliefs, but if someone called a person of color, a Gay man or a lesbian something just as bad, or worse yet, not even as bad, they would be thrown in prison and Crucified, just like my Lord was? HMM, interesting isn't it? Christ said it is not easy to have faith, and that there will come a time when people will hate you becuae of that faith. I wonder if, with your "New Age" and your view that the world needs to "Grow up" is just what my Lord was talking about

      February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • J.W

      I wasn't aware anyone in this country had been crucified lately. I need to read the news a little bit better

      February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Jeff

      Right on stevie68a. drturi.com, good info if you have an open mind.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Rob

      DJ- how the heck was he spewing hate?? That was a legit comment and actually constructive criticism for conservatives everywhere. You are the hate spewing doofus here- if you can take it, look at yourself in a mirror for awhile. Gah it makes me sick to hear people talk like you

      February 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • mike l

      Liberals have nothing against White, middle-class Christian conservatives. Only those pompous ones who beleive they are God's stepson on Earth. We don't care how or who you worship as long as you don't try to dictate to the rest of us how and whom to worship. Or that we are sinners because we don't follow your christian rules the way you'd like us to. We have no problem calling gays, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, etc. idiots if those individuals meet the criteria. Funny how conservative christians (small c) have castigated Catholics forever, but are latching onto this sanctorum idiot.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** but if someone called a person of color, a Gay man or a lesbian something just as bad, or worse yet, not even as bad, they would be thrown in prison and Crucified..................

      Wow, i didnt know that you would be put in prison or crucified,
      poor, poor persecuted christian.
      Can we feed you to the lions ?
      poor you.
      Pathetic.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  20. Joy of Sin

    Look at who speaks for God

    In Christian mythology, God is supposed to the the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe. God is supposed to have incarnated himself as Jesus and he is supposed to have written the Bible. And yet today God is completely and absolutely silent. Therefore, the only thing we hear from God comes from people who are speaking on his behalf.

    If you would like to understand how imaginary God is, all that you have to do is listen to God's spokespeople, because in many cases these people are lunatics. If there actually were a God, and if he actually had anything to do with love, he would silence these people because they are an absolute embarrassment.

    If God were real, he would speak for himself. The fact that God does not speak, and that he allows any lunatic who comes along to speak "in his name," shows us that God is quite imaginary.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • DJM3

      Joy,
      You are a poor soul and I am praying for you. But God does speak, ever read the Bible? He speaks to me all the time. Because you believe God is a myth, I pity you for not knowing real truth. Just look at Psalm 119. I am sorry that you will probably say "this guy is a nut" and blow mw off but I have and will always believe in God, his son Jesus Christ, who came to take My sin away. I am a sinner, I am not worthy, non of us are. But I have faith that God is with us and he loves us uncontionally.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • NoGr8rH8r

      I can hardly believe adults are walking around in the 21st century, still believing in Deities! I'm really ashamed of mankind and it's inability to think, rationalize and come to conclusions! Why would an all knowing, divine creature create a fallible species for starters? It's so DUMB to believe in anything besides reality!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Jeff

      Do you know what God really means? Hint: Not an all powerful deity

      God simply refers to all the natural forces in the Universe that protect us. God can do nothing for you. The secret? everything is inside of you.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Puzzled in Peoria

      Your grade school logic is an embarrassment to you. Everyone, including you, is capable of sin. It's called free will. Everyone who supposedly speaks for God is also capable of sin and error. If God murdered everyone who sins, it would be an empty planet. Instead, he sacrificed his Son Jesus Christ for the world's sins. That's how it works. The only thing imaginary is your logic. Nobody's buying it.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Jeff

      Why do Americans insist on attacking each other? Joy of Sin is expressing an opinion, which is still legal. Most of the Worlds population believes in some deity. Most wars are fought in the name of God, Allah or whatever deity someone conjured up. You can't even have a religious debate without a fight. Be tolerant and keep an open mind. This is still America, be tolerant of others beliefs.

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

      Precisely Puzzled in Peoria. The founding fathers knew that everyone is capable of sin and greed. That's why they came up with a Republic. It's the we the people that should be sticking together and holding the government accountable instead of fighting and calling each other names. Government is the root of all evil, although a necessary evil. Most Americans don't like our Republic because in a Republic you have to have individual responsibility.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Rob

      DJ- Arrogant of you to call anyone a "poor soul". Get a grip, you seriously need to think outside the little box you have created for yourself. You can have faith and still be open minded, and God would want you to do that. Not everything is as simple as you read it in the bible and its frankly insulting to God to try to act as if the Bible even BRUSHES the complexity of any higher power that exists.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • mike l

      If God speaks to us, how come at least three republicans said He told them to run for president. What, the All-Knowing is hedging his bets?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      DJM3
      Yes, I do think you are a nut. Perhaps even dangerous if you think invisible friends are talking to you.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      ** He speaks to me all the time.

      If you speak to god you are praying.
      If god speaks to you, you are crazy.
      Hearing voices is not healthy.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:41 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.