Rick Santorum's Cross to Bear

Apparently, Rick Santorum is displeased that he's being forced to talk about stuff like contraception, and Satan's war on America, when other candidates aren't getting the same kind of questions. One of his aides made the complaint to conservative journalist Byron York:

But specifically religious questioning of Romney is as rare as specific Romney statements about Mormon beliefs. Given the current grilling of Santorum, that is a source of growing frustration to Santorum's advisers. "Why is Mormonism off limits?" asks one. "I'm not saying it's a seminal issue in the campaign, but we're having to spend days answering questions about Rick's faith, which he has been open about. Romney will turn on a dime when you talk about religion. We're getting asked about specific tenets of Rick's faith, and when Romney says, 'I want to focus on the economy,' they say, OK, we'll focus on the economy."

In one way, Santorum's people have a point. Reporters haven't asked Romney lots of questions about Mormonism, for a few reasons. First, Romney does almost no interviews or press conferences, so reporters seldom get the chance to ask him about anything. Second, as the Santorum aide says, Romney will quickly deflect any question about Mormonism to a more general point about the importance of faith, Obama's "war on religion," blah blah blah. And finally, I suspect reporters are a little nervous about seeming intolerant. If you start asking Romney questions about the more colorful aspects of Mormon theology, you might sound like your being intolerant of a minority religion and implying that Romney's faith could be disqualifying. On the other hand, Santorum is quite happy to talk about what he thinks God wants and what he thinks God hates, speaking in much more concrete terms about religion than Romney ever does.

And Santorum's got company in one way: most Americans do, in fact, believe in the Devil—70 percent, according to this 2007 Gallup poll. But members of the press corps—whether they're liberal, conservative, or otherwise—are probably less likely to be in that group, if for no other reason than the fact that they tend to be well-educated. So when they hear that Santorum gave a speech in 2008 talking about how Satan was going after America, and in fact had already successfully taken over some parts of American life, particularly academia (no wonder that vice-provost tried to get me to change my major to Beelzebubian Studies!), they react with a certain degree of surprise. And most politicians, particularly national politicians (as opposed to some back-bench congressman no one's ever heard of) simply don't talk in those terms, so it's notable for being novel.

But this is what happens when you become a serious contender: people start looking over your whole history, including your legislative record, your personal finances, and yes, your religious beliefs. And when you've spent your career scolding people about how they're misusing their naughty bits, and proclaiming the need to get religion—your religion, anyway—more involved in our political life, it's going to be open for discussion.

And my broader position on this is that all these candidates ought to get asked about their religious beliefs, for the simple reason that they're the ones who bring it up. You can't say, as they do often, that your religion is the bedrock of everything you believe and everything you do, and then turn around and say we as citizens shouldn't ask you questions about it. To use an analogy I've offered before, if a candidate said, "I'm an existentialist, and I'll be guided by that philosophy every day in the Oval Office," but then said, "Hey, why are you asking me questions about existantialism? Let's talk about something else," we'd find it awfully strange. If Santorum wants to argue that we shouldn't talk about his religious beliefs because they aren't really important to him and they won't have any impact on the way he'd act as president, then fine. But he's the one who says his religion is important.

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