Santorum against the Current Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 13 September 2010

A former student of mine, quite experienced in politics, was visiting Governor George Bush in Texas in 2000 as the Bush campaign was getting into gear. He called to tell me that he realized just who would be the perfect running mate for Bush: Rick Santorum, the young senator from Pennsylvania. He was Eastern and Catholic, articulate, attractive. That made perfect sense at the time – and in retrospect it still does. But Santorum, running in 2008 as the successor to Bush, would likely have met the same fate as John McCain, done in by the financial upheaval in September 2008 and the mirage of Obama. 

Santorum was rudely ripped out of office in 2006 when sentiment turned against him back home in Pennsylvania. Now he has been liberated to speak on the issues in all parts of the country, and he speaks on issues that other political men and women would prefer not to talk about. He chose to speak in Houston last week on the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to the Baptist ministers during the campaign of 1960. In our own symposium on Kennedy’s speech, TCT contributors recognized how difficult, in fact, was Kennedy’s task, in running against the powerful current of opposition to Catholics in high office, mingled as it was with massive ignorance of the Church and its teaching. But as Kennedy sought to melt the opposition, he set in place the clichés that would form the mantras for the Catholic politicians to follow. Kennedy famously said that he “believed” in a president “whose views on religion are his own private affair.” But it was remarkable to reduce Catholic teaching to a “private” affair, as though it were not taught and shared communally for centuries, and as though the doctrines were thought to be true only for the person who held them.

Rick Santorum picked up on the critique offered by the theologian John Courtney Murray: the equation of religious conviction with mere “belief,” removed religion to a domain of things that reason could not discern or judge. “Beliefs” could not be confirmed or disproved, as true or false. In this way, religion was identified with the irrational. That was also the version sounded again by Barack Obama when he was honored last year at Notre Dame. Matthew Franck noted at the time that Obama simply offered this familiar denigration of religion, assimilating it to the domain of beliefs not valid for anyone but the person who professed to hold them. While all of this was going on, the officialdom of Notre Dame sat in benign acquiescence, savoring the presence in their midst of the President of the United States. That their Catholicism was being reduced to the plane of the trivial was either a matter of indifference to them or a matter serenely beyond their awareness. 

Santorum might have offered here a Tale of Two Kennedys. JFK stylishly supplied the new premises, and Justice Anthony Kennedy would later advance them in this way: The moral aversion to the homosexual life can be explained only in terms of religious belief; religious belief is essentially apart from tests of truth or falsity; and therefore the disapproval of the homosexual life is “born of animosity,” it is an “animus” that “lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests.” 

John Kennedy had said that, in the world as he saw it, “no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.” The shift was subtle but telling: The notion of respecting Catholic teaching was converted into the crude image of a man in authority issuing orders. But if  Catholic teaching is true, it would have commanded Kennedy’s respect – and  he would have been quite bound by it – regardless of whether anyone presumed to lay down orders for him. Santorum thought it was curious that politicians did not speak about “pressure” emanating from labor unions and environmentalists, but when the Church sounds its concerns in public, that is treated as the move of a hierarchy brandishing threats and handing down orders. 

And yet, these trends in diminishing the meaning of religion were well underway before Kennedy spoke in Houston. They were part of the ethic of skepticism, taking ever firmer hold – the growing discomfort in claiming to know truths of any kind, let alone truths of moral consequence. And the deeper erosion came in the meaning of “religion” itself. James Madison understood “religion” as the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it.” In the cases on “conscientious objection” in the Supreme Court, it became too sectarian by the 1970s to speak of a sense of obligation to that “Creator.” The Court finally opened itself to virtually any beliefs held with passion – beliefs that the judges thought could offer the “functional equivalent” of religion. And so, for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, religion refers to “deeply held beliefs” – a definition that would readily cover the passion of those who believe deeply in global warming and the promise of research on embryonic stem cells.  In stripping away these clichés, Rick Santorum was trying to assert again the rational ground of religious conviction and recover nothing less than the moral ground of the law. In that project, he is running against a current even stronger than the current faced by Jack Kennedy fifty years ago.

 
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths:  The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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