Santorum’s Satan Flap

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” – Mark Twain

Matt Drudge, who by some accounts went in the tank for Romney long ago, has unearthed some old audio footage (circa 2008) of Rick Santorum making some slightly-difficult-to-defend statements while speaking at a Catholic university. I emphasize that these are “slightly” difficult to defend, in that the theology is probably off just a touch (but just a touch) and they carry some political baggage that could hurt Santorum.

As a backdrop, Rick Santorum has become the “flavor of the month” in the Republican primary as Gingrich has faded, and the acceptance of Romney is not-yet-forthcoming. To be honest, this is a good development. I’m not saying that I’m on the line for Santorum here, though, as I’ve noted in the past, he at least sounds reasonable on the two most important policy issues facing the country from a moral standpoint: abortion and central banking. I say it is a good development because the field is now down to four. Gingrich can stick around because he has a ton of money, but his support has dwindled. There is only one more “flavor of the month” to try after Santorum … RON PAUL … so there’s still hope.

As the newly minted frontrunner, Santorum (a) could make a massive statement with wins next week in Michigan and Arizona, possibly coming as close as anybody yet has to “sealing the deal” if he took them both, and (b) will now face a more difficult vetting process (unlike Democrat candidates who skate by any difficult questions). Enter the 2008 audio.

As Drudge reports it, Santorum made the following soundbite statements:

  • “Satan has his sights on the United States of America”
  • “This is a spiritual war, and the Father of Lies has his sights set on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights set on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?”
  • “He attacks all of us when he attacks all of our institutions.”
  • “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”

(A four minute audio clip can be found here. It’s worth a listen.)

Now, in the context of the speech, none of these remarks sounds terribly off-putting. But they do present a slight (perhaps only slight) problem for Santorum (though it could also be an opportunity for him, if he handles it well … which I suspect he won’t).

There is a touch, and just a touch, of “America the Special” in here. Is America special? Well, we’d better define the terms. If by “special” we mean that America was founded differently that most other countries, as a place intended for religious freedom, then sure, America is special. That truly was a special beginning and we hope, hope, hope that such liberty continues in this place.

If we mean special as “God has chosen America to serve a special role in the world” then we possible go a touch out of our realm. It may well be that God has chosen America for special purposes in this time – but it is almost always dangerous for people (especially Americans) to consider and discuss such possibilities. It opens the door for “we are special and God is on our side” which leads to some unfortunate conclusions.

It’s not unlike the hullabaloo over Tim Tebow and now Jeremy Lin. I love those guys. I hope they have great success in their careers – in no small part because they are Christians. (Isn’t it natural to pull for your brothers to win?) But the hullabaloo is over whether God has chosen Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin to win because they are Christians. On the one hand, the answer may well be “yes” – He is sovereign Lord, is He not? On the other hand, for us to make such proclamations is theologically difficult. What about when they lose? Or what about other Christians who don’t have success? Is it because they are less faithful? We very quickly become Job’s “friends” in all of this. (Jay Michaelson has a decent discussion of this in “Does God Want Jeremy Lin to Win?“. Side note: Lin and Tebow have handled all of this incredibly well.)

Let’s put it in a different context. Were there German Christians during the rise of Hitler who gave some stock to the notion of Sacred Germany? Of course Germany was special. This was the homeland of Luther, one of the pillars of protestantism. This was a country that had a serious role to play in breaking free from some highly backward catholic theology of the day. I mean, this place was special. Were there German Christians who held to this “special” notion as Hitler rose to power? Who looked the other way on some serious problems because Germany was special? You bet.

The Old Testament talks about Nebuchadnezzar as God’s chosen. This was an oppressive, wicked, Babylonian king who did awful things (including to God’s chosen people). But God had chosen him for a purpose, and for a time. Did the Babylonians feel chosen by God? Well, they may not have phrased it exactly like that, but you can bet the answer is “yes”. You can bet that the Babylonians and then the Persians that followed felt that they had been elevated to such status by God. And they may well have been right. But invariably their notion of being “chosen by God” was more about them and less about Him.

The “America the Special” line of thinking gets brought up frequently in political campaigns. It may even be right, it’s just probably not right for the politicians to use it for their purposes. We are all very susceptible to getting this wrong, which can be dangerous.

The second point that is going to cause Santorum far more political trouble in my estimation is the one about mainline Protestantism: “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.” If you listen to the full audio clip, you see in there that he is specifically (though not overtly) pointing to a distinction between Protestants and Catholics (Santorum is Catholic). It’s not shocking, since he was speaking at a Catholic University, but it is politically difficult.

On its face, many evangelicals (whose support Santorum badly needs) would agree. Mainline Protestant denominations have strayed from simple Biblical truths. But elections aren’t won on theologically defensible talking points. There are two distinct issues here.

First, Santorum has pointed to mainline Protestants as leaving Christianity. I’ll offer a conjecture that this will NOT help him win the mainline Protestant vote.

Next, there’s the “in the family” issue. That is, it’s one thing for me to tell my brother he’s a bum, but don’t you do it. He’s still my brother. Here is a Catholic disparaging Protestants in a nation that is overwhelmingly Protestant. Are you sure you want to go down that road? I didn’t pick this fight, but if we want to chat about indulgences, the immaculate conception, and Co-Redemtrix nonsense then we certainly can, Mr. “gone from the world of Christianity”. See how easy it is for these religious differences to enter the conversation once somebody brings them up? (Point of clarity for the not-so-religiously inclined: “immaculate conception” does not refer to the virgin birth of Christ, but to a Catholic concept that Mary was redeemed from original sin in her conception – an immaculate conception – allowing her to be a sinless conduit for the Lord.)

Now, I don’t hold Catholics as “gone from the world of Christianity” – but there are a lot of evangelicals that do. The issue is a losing proposition for Santorum – politically speaking.

My understanding is that the last Republican primary debate is tonight. There is little doubt that this will come up. It is an opportunity for Santorum if he handles it well. It could also be a real problem. We shall see.

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