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Rick Santorum’s Religious Sectarianism Makes America Queasy

February 21, 2012

Hat Tip To Rolf.

Over the past weeks I have thought back to one of the great books I enjoyed in the past couple years.  The reason for my mental jaunt backwards is due to the rhetoric that Rick Santorum is spewing on the campaign trail about religion and his perceived role as the one who seems intent on delivering another set of stone tablets with rules inscribed upon them for citizens to follow.

Jon Meacham (who needs no introduction) wrote “American Gospel” in 2006, and if Rick Santorum wanted to take a few hours off the campaign trail and make it count he might invest a few bucks into this read.  Santorum might get a kick out of discovering that religion shapes our nation, but does not control it.

I mention this as another read (though shorter than the one I prescribe for the National Minister) came my way today which is tone perfect, and aims directly to the center of the dialogue this nation is now having.  Forced to be having, I might add, due to one very errant Republican candidate.

There are a variety of reasons why Santorum ought to pivot away from his newfound role as Anathematizer-in-Chief:

Americans prefer “Civil Religion” or “Civic Republican*” models: These approaches stress the positive role that God and faith play in American public life. Persnickety secularists aside, most Americans have no difficulty with this. Of course, “God” here is a non-denominational God, almost Deistic in His unwillingness to sign on with any one faith tradition.

This God loves America and hates drawing religious distinctions among us. With the exception of atheists, few citizens find this rhetoric objectionable (though it would be nice if Americans tried to understand why atheists are troubled by this).

For proponents of this approach think Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan (mostly), Clinton, George W. Bush (for the most part) and Obama (for the most part).

Americans are rendered queasy by religious sectarianism in politics:  The opposite of the Civic Republican model is a kind of scowling Puritan-inflected worldview. The Debbie-Downer of church-state accommodations, this model decries a sinful America, whoremongeringly headed down the path to perdition. Unless, of course, proper prayerful steps are taken.

The Puritan-inflected approaches are saturated in the gloomiest strains of Calvinist theology and have little compunction about calling (all) other theologies “phony.” The default mode of this public theology is divisiveness. Think Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Pastors Parsley and Hagee (who nearly blew out John McCain’s Faith and Values operation in 2008), Robert Jeffress (who Mormon-baited in support of Rick Perry a few months back), and so many more.

How a Catholic such as Rick Santorum came to embrace the Puritan model (which is not, I would add, a big fan of Rome) is a peculiarity meriting much more detailed exposition.

The MSM hates this stuff: Watching CNN’s Soledad O’Brien  interrogate a Santorum spokesperson this morning about the “phony theology” comment was reminiscent of  Bob Schieffer’s incredulous prompt to Santorum: “So Senator, I’ve got to ask you–what in the world were you talking about, Sir?” Journalists get their own scowl on when it comes to this type of rhetoric: an Anathematizer runs against the media as well.

Americans are too religiously diverse for old-school anathematizing: Until a majority of Americans belong to one religious denomination, Anathematizing will always be a losing proposition. Recall the backlash that ensued when Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on the interventions of homosexuals and feminists. Or ponder how much damage control has to be performed with the Jewish community when a hint of anti-Semitism is detected in the oratory of a politician. Herman Cain’s (2011) and John McCain’s (2007) musings on Muslims kept them on the defensive for weeks. Simply put, there are so many different types of religious Americans that any effort to foist a particular theological perspective upon all of them is doomed to fail. If you’re going to talk about religion on the stump, you had better stay positive–and vague.

One Comment
  1. Gern Blanston, freelance malapropist permalink
    February 21, 2012 5:14 PM

    ….unless you’ve bought a crap-load of voting machines and countless Kathrine Harrises and Kathy Nicholauses, judges at various levels, print and broadcast media, and a few dozen Law Professors who are willing to back up whatever happens with phony legalese.

    Then you can pretty much play the game however you want.

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