The Curious Protestantism of Rick Santorum

The other night I watched the Republican Primary debate from Arizona and was struck by the incongruity of two Roman Catholics and a Mormon fighting to be the standard bearer for what has become the party of American conservative evangelicalism.  Even a cursory knowledge of American history will remind you that one of the (nasty) features of American Protestantism right up to the late 20th century was a virulent anti-Catholocism.  And in the 19th century Mormons were run and burned out of town in Illinois (and elsewhere) by Protestant mobs. Well, if that particular form of bigotry has changed all for the good.

But the more I listen to Rick Santorum, the more Protestant he sounds, and perhaps this is his appeal to conservative Protestants.  So I was pleased to find in today’s on-line New Yorker a knowledgeable exegesis of Rick Santorum’s remarks the other day about President Obama’s “theology.”

The article, called “Senator Santorum’s Planet,” is by James Wood.  He writes, “If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note?” You can tell Wood has some pew-sitting in his past (he admits as much), and he clearly understands the subtle nuances of biblical and theological talk.  He says,

“I know the theological weight of that word, “steward.” When I was a boy, my mother, in the grip of her Scottish evangelical Protestantism, used to chide me for my untidy bedroom, adding that, as a Christian, it was an example of “poor stewardship.” Everything is the Lord’s, and our brief role on earth is merely to husband it in a right way, a way that gives the Lord His due.”

Wood sees in Santorum an apocalyptical ascetism more obviously associated with Protestantism than Roman Catholicism and I think that is just right.  Santorum may be a conservative Catholic, but his theology has heavy overtones that come not out othe native soil of his own faith, but from a particular brand of American evangelicalism.  This is at the heart of his objection to the President’s “theology,” which he identifies with an extreme form of environmentalism that the President’s critics on the left must find confounding.

Wood concludes:

When Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

The great irony in all this is that  among the viable contenders in the coming election the only actual Protestant in the race is President Obama.

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2 thoughts on “The Curious Protestantism of Rick Santorum

  1. It’s all a mess, isn’t it?

    Santorum’s statement about how reading JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up” is equally interesting. JFK made the speech to reassure Protestants, many of whom were frightened that a Catholic president would take his orders from the Vatican. Promising not to consult the bishops was the only way he could get elected.

    One might read in the recent blowup concerning insurance coverage of contraception that the American bishops no longer wish to “lay low,” and yearn to play an active roll in national politics. This is certainly consistent with European Catholic history, but as far as I know a relatively new development in America. In this case, Santorum’s position is decidedly not the historically Protestant one.

  2. Thanks, Bob. I think Santorum is making coded statements to the Evangelical right. They often have a paranoid obsession with the sins of secular America and long for a “Christian” America, whatever that means, though I am sure it wouldn’t include you or me. My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Rabbi Dennis Ross had a solid letter to the NYTimes yesterday. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/opinion/when-santorum-talks-about-church-and-state.html?_r=2&ref=letters

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