Political Animal


February 20, 2012 12:05 PM Of “Phony Theology”

By Ed Kilgore

As Adele Stan noted in this space yesterday, Rick Santorum reached a new summit Saturday in his efforts to paint the president and “liberals” generally as secularist enemies of Christianity. In a speech at a luncheon sponsored by the Ohio Christian Alliance (successor to the Ohio branch of the Christian Coalition), Santorum used an interesting phrase to describe Obama’s belief-system:

Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.

Some observers immediately connected these comments to the widespread myth among Obama-haters that the president is actually a Muslim.

Thus, when Santorum, under questioning about these remarks, said “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian,” it probably looked to some as though he was backing down a bit from the thrust of his attacks.

I don’t think so.

As I noted in a post last week that has drawn some fire from conservative bloggers, Santorum is on record identifying with the fairly common fundamentalist belief (shared by some “traditionalist” Catholics and even by secular commentators) that mainline or “liberal” Protestants have largely abandoned Christianity for man-made idols. To use Santorum’s own phrase for Obama, many conservative Christians think mainliners maintain a theology that is “not a theology based on the Bible,” but on the nefarious beliefs of such neo-pagans as the “radical environmentalists” who don’t understand God gave dominion over nature to man for his enjoyment and exploitation.

In other words, Santorum’s dog-whistle is aimed not so much at people who ignorantly believe Obama is a secret Muslim, but at people who look at Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists and Congregationalists (Obama’s own denominational background) and see infidels who don’t understand that “true” Christianity requires hard-core opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, or for that matter, environmentalism, feminism, and other departures from nineteenth century American mores. Indeed, in the 2008 Ave Maria University speech I wrote about the other day, Santorum described mainline Protestants as people who had, sadly, gone over to the enemy camp in a “spiritual war” between God and Satan.

As a Roman Catholic, of course, Rick Santorum doesn’t follow a theology that is based strictly on the Bible, either, but on centuries of (selectively applied) Church teachings that happen to coincide with those of conservative evangelical Protestants. Catholic “traditionalists” are engaged in their own parallel war with “liberal Catholics” whom they accuse of “betraying” their Church by supporting legalized contraception and/or abortion or same-sex marriage or the ordination of women.

The political alliance of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic “traditionalists” has become a familiar part of the landscape in this country, odd as it may seem to old-timers who remember the conservative Protestant hostility to JFK’s presidential candidacy on grounds that no Catholic could conscientiously support strict separation of church and state (a position conservative evangelicals have themselves now emphatically abandoned.) But it’s important to understand that all the thundering about “secularism” we hear from the religio-political Right these days represents in no small part an intra-Christian civil war by conservatives on those in every faith tradition who do not accept their elevation of “traditional” cultural values to the level of religious absolutes.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on February 20, 2012 12:29 PM:

    "people who look at Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists and Congregationalists (Obamaís own denominational background) and see infidels"
    Ed, you probably should add Mormon's to this list. I'm a little surprised that Santorum hasn't gotten around to Romney's Mormon faith yet, as it is prominently vilified by the Evangelicals Santorum is aiming his religious rants at.
    The very kind of wacked out rant that Santorum unleashed in Obama's direction yesterday is the reason the GOP Elite is shivering in its collective booties that he'll win Michigan and build a groundswell among TeaParty Evangelicals. The general public, including most Catholics, will run from his Medieval ideals in November.

  • Mitt's Magic Underwear on February 20, 2012 12:34 PM:

    Ed, Jesus clearly hated gays and saw women only a baby-making machines. Haven't you read the Bible??

    I think Santorum is taunting Romney, just hoping Romney brings up religion. Then Santorum will go after his Mormonism. Or maybe Santorum is just ranting with no plans....

  • FlipYrWhig on February 20, 2012 12:37 PM:

    You're making this way too complicated. He means "secularism" or "atheism," and he's saying that they're theologies in spite of themselves. Newt Gingrich and Bill O'Reilly have been ranting about "secular progressives" for years. That's what they think Obama is, and why they say he's waging war on religion.

  • TCinLA on February 20, 2012 12:42 PM:

    Garrison Keillor explained these people perfectly a few years back, when he advised: "Never take a Baptist fishing with you, or he'll drink all your beer. Take two of them and they won't drink any."

    His point was that these are people deeply afraid of themselves, who view themselves in the opinions of others. The Baptist who drinks all your beer is deeply ashamed of so doing, and works to present himself in public as an "upstanding Christian," by not drinking any in front of his fellow "upstanding Christian" (who is likely playing the same game). Thus these people can't let either their religion or their patriotism play out privately, but rather have to act out in public to demonstrate their fealty to those beliefs, and to make themselves "right" by pointing to the others who don't have this deep personal distrust of themselves, as being "wrong."

    I recently had the displeasure of running across an idiot from high school. Back then he was a loudmouthed promoter of Campus Crusade for Christ. Today he's a retired Hair Farce Lieutenant Colonel and still a loudmouthed promoter of fundamentalist religion and politics. He somehow ran across something I had written on the Internet, and wrote me to attack my "godlessness." I replied: "Nice to see some things never change: you were a loudmouthed moron 50 years ago and you still are." Since then there's been dead silence from him (thank the goddess).

    Just remember that every time these idiots open their mouths, they reveal how deeply pathetic they are.

  • T2 on February 20, 2012 12:57 PM:

    TCinLA....interesting the guy was Air Force. I've heard that the Air Force Academy is very, very religiously oriented...almost to the point of exclusion for cadets not considered "religious enough".

  • emjayay on February 20, 2012 1:05 PM:

    T2, I think the AF Academy became not very religious, but very fundamentalist evangelical Christianist religous. Colorado Springs in general apparently has a lot of that going on. Maybe the whole Ted Haggard thing cooled all this off a bit, but I'm sure it was only a momentary blip.


  • Kathryn on February 20, 2012 1:07 PM:

    "political alliance of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists" and what an unholy coupling that is. None of the social concerns for the poor, the least among us for either group. These are the folks that mock Pres. Obama for suggesting such ideas and quoting bible passages that support his worldview at the so called prayer breakfast. They mock the teachings of Jesus Christ when he walked on this earth.

    TCinLA........my husband who was in the Army in Vietnam always says that all retired Lt. Col. are total jerks, a bit of a sweeping judgement, but he stands by it. Apologies to all the fine retired Lt. Cols among us!

  • schtick on February 20, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Can't they go back to separation of church and state and stop with the freaking litmus test they perceive to give and score? I'm sick of hearing about freaking religion in politics. STFU already you ignorant tealiban bible thumpers. Stop avoiding the mess you've gotten this country in by promoting YOUR religious views on everyone else. Like sharia law. Enough already.

    crapcha....neesMa tying....she needs to tie their mouths!

  • jjm on February 20, 2012 1:12 PM:

    Fundamentalism is merely a chance for people to let their ids speak and say whatever they feel like saying without constraints or concerns for other people.

    There is no consistency, and definitely no THEOlogy to it. For them, "God" is whatever they say is inside them, and by the look of what comes out of their mouths, "He" isn't a pretty sight.

    It's emotional catharsis for those who would never access the mental health treatments they are clearly in need of.

    As for Santorum's Opus Dei "Catholicism" -- this throwback is going to be rejected by the Church he is loving almost literally to death.

  • Coop on February 20, 2012 1:13 PM:

    One of several possible silver linings to this cloud could be a gradual "divorce" of the idea that only Christians have morals and do good works in the world. If a significant segment of the population buys into the idea that mainstream (or heaven forbid "liberal") Christianity isn't really Christianity, and yet the less blindered members of that segment see those "phony" Christians supporting orphanages, running homeless shelters, helping Third World villages develop clean water systems, and so on, then maybe those "real" Christians will pause for a moment and think.

    It's also possible of course that Santorum's narrow-mindedness will turn off a goodly number of people who lean Republican but sit in a Methodist or Episcopal or Congregational pew every Sunday.

  • OKDem on February 20, 2012 1:25 PM:

    Keillor was merely following in the footsteps of Will Rogers who pointed out 60 years earlier: "Oklahoma will remain dry as long as the Baptists can stagger to the polls."

  • RollaMo on February 20, 2012 1:26 PM:

    The Sweater of Sanctimony has spoken. Let us pray he continues down this path.

  • Jimo on February 20, 2012 1:30 PM:

    I think you're on the right track, Ed. This isn't a nefarious reference to pseudo-Muslim belief but rather a reflection of an internal division within Christianity.

    I suppose a more mainline Protestant or "liberal" Catholic, would answer Santorum by asking "Where's Jesus in your theology"?

    Having watched a newscast in one of these primary states of Santorum locally answering a question about affordable medicine, I can second that claim: where's Jesus?

    Santorum's answer was rabidly anti-Christian and almost sounded as if it were drawn from the theology of (the anti-Christian) Ayn Rand. Santorum was obsessed about failing to reward and incentivize drug research (a valid enough concern) but all but denounced the idea that there was any counter claim by society (for legal protections necessary, for research funding provided by gov't, etc.). For Santorum, if government didn't become a co-conspitator with the drug companies in fleecing the public for the maximum price possible, then it was the same thing as "theft."

    Catholic theology is full of claims about environmentalism, human rights to health care, the right of every willing adult not only to labor but to a fair wage for their labor, etc. I'd suggest someone should ask Santorum about this.

    But if the Bishops won't, why should anyone else? The Catholic Church operates as if there was a "anti-abortion" trump card that overcomes failure to advance the catechism of the Church on all other matters. (Maybe that's not a shocker for an institution that developed the concept of indulgences.)

  • ral on February 20, 2012 1:35 PM:

    The only war on religion going on is the war Santorum and his American Talliban buddies are waging against all of us.

    I am secure in my faith and my relationship with God. I certainly don't need the Santorum's of the world to lecture me with their narcissistic self-serving religiosity.

    I do not see a Christian when I see Santorum. I believe Santorum wouldn't know Jesus if he walked right up to him, but, I bet Santorum would be very, very comfortable in the robes of The Holy Inquisition.

  • Jim V. on February 20, 2012 1:38 PM:

    OK, I get that Santorum wants to represent himself as some traditional Catholic, following closely to the Bible. He rejects the Government providing social safety net through the imposition of taxes, as that should be provided through the generosity/charity of the community, neighbors, family and friends. But then I look at his tax returns, and his donations to charity reflect less than 2% of his income. WTF? I thought I'd see at least a tither? Heck, Obama that awful secularist has given more than the Bible noted 10%. Can Santorum spell H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-T-E?

  • CJ on February 20, 2012 1:41 PM:

    If we deported the Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, Jews, and every other non-Christian, then--if the Rick Santorums of the world had their way--the political battles would simply convert to battles between Catholics and protestants, and then Methodists and Baptists, and so on until we became a one denominational country.

    The fact is that conservatives aren't happy unless they have enemies to hate and demonize.

  • AMS on February 20, 2012 1:57 PM:

    The real story here is that, like the frog in water that is gradually heated to boiling, we have come to accept as inevitable that every candidate for President will be compelled to repeatedly and exhaustively disclose his/her religious faith. It didn't used to be that way---even JFK was able to scotch the issue cleanly in his famous speech to the Methodist ministers.

    I find this inappropriate, unseemly and more than a little creepy. The Constitution states that "there shall be no religious test for office." Yet candidates believe they must submit to public vetting by prominent religious leaders (remember Rick Warren's interviews with Obama and McCain in 2008?)and discuss their most private spiritual beliefs in great detail. I cannot imagine a Presidential candidate without a strong religious identity getting anywhere in contemporary politics. How did it come to this?

  • j on February 20, 2012 2:17 PM:

    On the one side we have a deranged Santorum, clearly in the
    model of Franco or Mussolini, who wants the Catholic church to call all of the shots, on the other side we have Romney who has been a mormon missionary (to get out of going to Vietnam) also a one time bishop in the mormon church, who never learned to tell the truth.
    God help us all!!!!

  • Patrick Star on February 20, 2012 2:33 PM:

    I'm Catholic, but a liberal, Vatican II Catholic, however my local priests are Norbertines, very conservative, and I've been hearing some thinly veiled political cheerleading from the pulpit recently. On Sunday, we were told to bring "our country" back to Christ, and do "the courageous thing" to change the course of the country, which had "recently" turned in the wrong direction. We were also asked to pray for "our President", so that he would respect "religious freedom". Santorum must be a dream-come-true for these guys. I think they're playing with fire on this whole contraception thing (not abortion, mind you, contraception).

  • revchicoucc on February 20, 2012 2:35 PM:

    The US Catholic Bishops and Mr. Santorum's statements about non-Catholic Christians, whether or not they are coordinated, are a flailing attempt of the Roman Catholic Church to re-assert its imperialist tendencies as the One True Church for all Christians.

    Pope Benedict has publically expressed concern that the church "has lost" Europe. He doesn't want to "lose" the United States either. The Roman Catholic Church lost it's religious hegemony over the West in 1517, if not earlier. Time to adjust to the ways the world has changed over these 500 years, gentlemen.

  • nerd on February 20, 2012 3:11 PM:

    It is a shame that there are so many Christians who don't seem to understand "Love your neighbor as yourself". Of course, it could be that they really don't like themselves and so treat others with the disdain they have for themselves.

  • exlibra on February 20, 2012 5:03 PM:

    In other words, Santorumís dog-whistle is aimed not so much at people who ignorantly believe Obama is a secret Muslim [...] -- Ed Kilgore

    I wouldn't be so sure. That's the "backpedal" part, because there was a pushback to his "phony theology" bit. But, what is he saying "at home", as it were, among his trusty campaign lieutenants? Probably "damn the Muslim, the phony Christian". How else do you explain this:
    And then he follows up with the Hitler reference (see Steve Benen at Maddow Blog)...

  • FreakyBeaky on February 20, 2012 6:41 PM:

    500 years? That's nothing to these guys. They figure if they just stick around their time will come around again ... just like when the Roman empire fell, they'll be the last institution left standing. Then the world will adjust to them, for the second time.

  • al-Ameda on February 20, 2012 7:37 PM:

    Nobody is working harder to re-elect Obama than Rick Santorum.

  • yocona on February 20, 2012 10:22 PM:

    "Nobody is working harder to re-elect Obama than Rick Santorum."
    My suspicion is that this is exactly what the real powers-that-be of the Republican party want to happen. They realize that they made a deal with the devil when they let the Tea-hadists set the agenda. They also know that this presidential election is a lost cause. So they are giving the Christian right the rest of the rope--that way they can hang themselves in spectacular fashion. Then the Republican elites can get busy priming Jeb for 2016.

  • pj in jesusland on February 21, 2012 5:06 AM:

    If Muslims had as many instances of pedophilia and child abuse among the clergy as Catholics what do you suppose public opinion of imams and mosques would be like?

  • pj in jesusland on February 21, 2012 5:28 AM:

    By seeking to impose Catholic values on America Rick Santorum wants everyone to have the right to practice intolerance, with the government backing them up.

    How democratic.