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February 21st, 2012
05:00 PM ET

Santorum and Satan - the devil is in the details

Editor's note: Tune in Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET for the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday, the CNN/Arizona Republican Party Debate hosted by John King. Follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate and on Facebook at CNN Politics. For real-time coverage of the Arizona and Michigan primaries, go to CNNPolitics.com or to CNN apps or the CNN mobile site.

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - A 2008 speech by Rick Santorum at Ave Maria University is making waves this week, in large part because Santorum said Satan had his sights set on America and the country was facing spiritual warfare.

The speech came at the beginning of the academic year at the Catholic university in Florida.  At that point, the 2008 presidential campaign was in full swing.  Then-candidate Barack Obama had recently made a statement about abortion and the issue of deciding when life began, which he said was above his pay grade.

Santorum was using the devil-tinged language after explaining Obama's position on abortion.  He quoted Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota, who said at the time, “Catholics who support so-called ‘abortion rights’ support a false right, promote a culture of death and are guarded by the father of lies."

"This is not a political war at all, this is not a culture war at all, this is a spiritual war," Santorum said, according to a recording of the speech on the university's website. "And the father of lies has his sights on what you think the father of lies, Satan, would have his sights on.  A good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America."

The speech gained a new life this week when it surfaced on the website Right Wing Watch and was then picked up by the Drudge Report and a host of media outlets.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

"If you were Satan, who would you attack?" the former U.S. senator asked the students.  "There's no one else to go after other than the United States, and that's been the case, for now, almost 200 years."

Santorum went on to explain how he thought the devil had attacked the United States in several areas: its foundations, academia, the Protestant Church and government.

Asked about the speech on Tuesday, Santorum offered no apologies. "I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil," Santorum told CNN in Arizona.

"If somehow or another because you’re a person of faith and you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president, we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president," he said.

"If they want to go ahead and dig up old speeches to a religious group they can go right ahead and do so," Santorum went on. "I'm going to stay on message. I'm going to talk about the things Americans want to talk about."

In his 2008 speech, the Catholic Santorum said that Satan had relatively little success attacking the founders and the foundation of the country. But time, like an acid, wore away America's great institutions, "using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition," he said.

Santorum said Satan was first, and most successfully, attacked academia.  Once academia fell to pride and its own truths, he said, the Protestant Church fell next in the United States.

"We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country, and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it," he said.

From there, he turned to U.S. culture, lambasting the National Basketball Association, rock concerts and movie sets. "They are peacocks on display, and they have taken their poor behavior and made it fashionable," which he said was further evidence of spiritual warfare.

Also fallen to Satan: politics and government, he said.  Specifically, Santorum highlighted a 2004 interview with then-state Sen. Obama did with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Shortly after Obama won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, he sat down with Cathleen Falsani in one of the few extended interviews he has done about his faith.

"What is sin?" Falsani asked Obama.

"Being out of alignment with my values," Obama responded.

In his Ave Maria speech, Santorum seized on this point. "So now we have the first truly post-modern presidential candidate. Clearly, explicitly defining his own reality," he said.

But the reporter who conducted that interview with Obama said Santorum is mistaken.

"Mr. Santorum is conveniently ignoring the fact that was not the opening question I asked him, nor was it the only question I asked. I asked what did he believe, and he articulated his faith and prayer life," Falsani said.

"We had talked about his born-again experience. [Obama's] values are based on his historical Christian faith.  He wasn't talking about, 'whatever I feel like is right in my reality,' " she said.

Falsani said the Santorum-implied dig - that Obama has his own definition of sin outside of traditional Christianity - was wrong. "The answer came in the specific context of having just articulated his Christian faith," she said.

In response, Falsani posted the full transcript of her interview with the president on the Sojourners website, where she now works as Web editor and director of new media.

But what stirred the media and the Internet the most was the notion of all-out spiritual warfare. It made easy fodder for late-night comics.

"If Rick Santorum is the commander in chief, he will do what no other president has had the courage to do: declare war on hell,"  satirist Stephen Colbert said on "The Colbert Report" on Monday night.  "It's simple: All we have to do is take our nuclear missiles out of their silos and put them back in upside-down."

At the time of the speech, Santorum was two years' removed from political office and not running for anything.

Sources who have known Santorum for some time told CNN that this is who Santorum is. He sees the world in black and white, good versus evil, they said.

A big difference between this speech and what he had talked about publicly before, according to some who know him, is that during this time frame, he was out of office and didn't have people with political antennae around him to pull him back from such stark rhetoric.

While his speaking about the devil in a political context may be considered a candidate no-no, Stephen Schneck, a political scientist from Catholic University, says consider the crowd.

"Ave Maria is a unique place," Schneck said. "They are very orthodox in their Catholicism and conservative in their politics."

Donning the language of spiritual warfare can score points with the crowd.  "In some very conservative Catholic circles, that language resonates," he said.

"What he's saying, it's certainly not any heresy," said Father Tom Reese, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

"It's the language some preachers would use that conservative Catholics would be very comfortable with. Is it the kind of language theology professors at Catholic universities would use? Probably not. They would likely see it more metaphorically," he said.

"He's well within the tradition," Reese said of Santorum's talk of spiritual warfare.  Though he added,  "When he starts applying those definitions to specific politicians, those are his own judgments, not the judgment of the church."

As for the candidate today, an aide issued a one-word statement on the flap: "ridiculous."

CNN's Dana Bash and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Politics • Rick Santorum

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    Oh, I'm sure he probably does see evil in the world as uaelmlttiy deriving from God v. Satan. He is a faithful Roman Catholic. I'm not offended by your position that such a person shouldn't be president. I think that's consistent with your secular atheism and Christians should expect that you'd be likely to state that. So, no offense here (and I still think you were polite despite not trying to be ). I do disagree, as I think what matters for American secular office is what a person believes one should do, practically, in the here and now, even if evils derive either directly or indirectly from a larger ongoing cosmic battle. Since, presumably, we are not all on the wrong side (and Santorum would claim at least Roman Catholicism is on the right side). I fee the same about Romney and Mormonism. I am not a Mormon and don't find it appealing or convincing but I wouldn't vote against him just because he is a Mormon.I do apologize for that last sentence. It is clear to me this morning that I wasn't clear! I simply meant position A (there is a cosmic God v. Satan battle) does not cause position B (there should be low unemployment). I read you as claiming that by virtue of Santorum holding to a God v. Satan battle, he wasn't concerned about getting low unemployment. I was simply stating the two are not necessarily causally related. That is, belief in that cosmic battle doesn't necessarily cause one not to be concerned with unemployment numbers. That's all I was saying. T is concerned about the last sentence and I appreciate his concern. If such a cosmic battle is not an ongoing reality, then Santorum (and any similarly believing Christian) would be making a serious logical error.

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    T, I can definitely see how one might think the last sncnetee is a false cause (there is a God v. Satan battle, therefore unemployment or vice versa whichever way one wishes to run it). I hope most people can keep two things in mind, though. First, to show it is a false cause, we'd have to rip into the evidence pro and con (concerning Christian cosmology) and my guess is that we'd quickly outstrip a blog format. More importantly, you missed my point. My point actually was not that there is a God v. Satan battle such that unemployment occurs. I did not state that last sncnetee as any kind of proof on my part (and I apologize that I gave the impression such that you thought I was making such a proof). You are correct, if one assumes atheism or a fundamentally different religious cosmology, that the possibility I stated will seem like a false cause (this unemployment came later, therefore that cosmic battle caused it), but again, that would come down to the age-old debate over whether there is a God v. Satan battle in the classical Christian sense (do either God or Satan exist and, if so, how?). If there is such a battle, it's not a false cause (as evils could be either directly derivative from that battle or indirectly, via influences and choices arising from Satan's alleged rebellion). If there is no such ongoing battle as classically understood, it most definitely is a false cause. Yes, one could claim there is a battle but it is not the one classically understood by Western Christianity, and in that way, note the last sncnetee is also a false cause, but since we were dealing with Santorum, I felt it safe to assume the classical Christian cosmology. In the classical, Christian cosmology, the Fall, starting with Satan, really, creates the evil in the cosmos. Some evils may be derivative from earlier evils (e.g. evil choices by people) rather than necessarily always directly imputed from without by Satan, but for classical Christian cosmology, especially in the Roman Catholic system of inherited guilt, the one (Satan's rebellion and successful tempting of Adam and Eve) causes the other (the Fall and subsequent evils). Also, these later other evils in classical Christian cosmology are not caused by the God v. Satan battle simply in that they occur after Satan's initial rebellion, but are caused by a battle Christians have typically seen as ongoing and continuous. So, admittedly, someone holding to classical Western Christian cosmology does believe evil in the world results from Satan's initial rebellion and the subsequent chaos it caused (such as humanity becoming mixed up in it). Santorum's Roman Catholicism makes it explicit through Augustine's theology of the Fall, where all of humanity inherits Adam's guilt (except Mary, who has a special grace imputed into her to remove that stain).Again, though, that was not my point (as I think the debate would become interminable on this or most any other blog! ). Rather, my point, which I hope most people got, was that there is not necessarily a causal connection between position A (there is a God v. Satan battle) and position B (there should be unemployment). Holding position A does not require that one holds position B. The last sncnetee is simply stating one possible way in which a person could believe both position A but also position not-B. An atheist will find that position ridiculous, since an atheist will find position A to be false (creating the false cause you note), as would someone who perhaps doesn't hold to the classical Western Christian cosmology, but it is possible for Santorum to hold to A and not-B. I'm glad to have read your comment. I hope my comments are now clearer to readers.

    April 3, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
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About this blog

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.