Evangelical right beguiled by Santorum's religious credentials

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

AMERICA:Evangelical Christians gave Rick Santorum his first primary victory in Iowa in January and they could push the former senator and fundamentalist Catholic from Pennsylvania over the top in the Ohio primary on Tuesday.

Santorum beat Mitt Romney by 16 percentage points among evangelicals in Michigan last Tuesday and 44 per cent of Ohio Republicans are evangelicals, compared to 39 per cent in Michigan. “He does align with our views on life, on religious liberty, on traditional marriage as between a man and a woman,” says Pastor Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance.

When Santorum spoke to the Christian Alliance in Columbus on February 18th, he said President Obama “has a theology that’s not rooted in the Bible”. Long interpreted the remark as a condemnation of the Obama administration’s requirement that Catholic universities and charities include contraception in health insurance for their employees.

Vice-president Joe Biden, an Irish-American Catholic, said this week that the policy was a mistake. Obama has fudged by saying insurance companies, not Catholic institutions, will pay for contraceptives.

Evangelicals do not oppose birth control, but they have allied themselves with those Catholics who refuse to let the controversy die, distorting and magnifying its significance. “It’s really outrageous for president Obama to say that he presumes what people of faith ought to believe,” says Long. “This is unprecedented anywhere on the globe. Only tyrants and states of tyranny presume to know what people ought to believe. We are pretty exercised about it.”

Republicans who portray opposition to contraception as a matter of religious freedom did not clamour for the right of Muslims to build a community centre near ground zero.

Many, like Long, view Islam as “intolerant”, “brutal” and “a threat to our constitution”. Rev Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said on February 21st that he wasn’t sure whether Obama was a Christian or a Muslim because “Islam has gotten a free pass” under Obama.

“Religion’s influence on US politics has hit a high-water mark, especially on the right,” David Campbell and Robert Putnam, professors at Notre Dame and Harvard universities, have written in their book American Grace, an excerpt of which is published in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Though faith was a strong motivator for the slavery abolition movement and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the God gap between Republicans and Democrats has materialised only over the past 40 years. The 1950s were arguably the most religious decade in US history, yet faith was spread through both parties and was not a political issue. “Republicans were Rockefeller, blue-blood country-clubbers,” Long recalls. “Things have changed now. The sanctity of human life, traditional marriage and religious liberties; that’s all in the Republican platform. Conversely, the Democratic party has endorsed a pro-abortion position that is just untenable.”

The Grand Old Party has become the Party of God; the Democrats the party of secular progressives. “Church attendance has become the main dividing line between Republican and Democratic voters,” Campbell and Putnam have written.

Long sees 2012 as another “high-water mark” for the religious right. Earlier victories were the role played by the Christian Coalition in the Republican landslide victory in the 1994 mid-term elections, George W Bush’s election in 2000 and re-election in 2004. “Ohio was in the nexus of that battle,” Long recalls. “By winning Ohio, Bush won re-election. He did it by supporting the marriage amendment that became part of our state constitution.”

Academics and commentators say Santorum’s religious fervour alienates more people than it convinces, that the contraception issue – revived this week with the failed Blunt amendment in the Senate – drives women away from the Republican party.

“That’s talking head liberals,” scoffs Long. “They have been wrong time and time again . . .We keep coming back, because we are the people out here.”

Between 1969 and 1973, the number of Americans approving of premarital sex doubled, from one-quarter to a half. The evangelical movement was to a large extent a backlash against that cultural revolution. Long says there’s a new generation of conservative Americans “that’s not 1960s burn your bra get rid of the kids because we want to have a good time”. It is only a matter of time, he says, before the Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion is overturned. But the situation described by Campbell and Putnam is different; that of vocal minority wielding disproportionate power and forcing Republican politicians to embrace their agenda.

Evangelicals as a percentage of the population have slipped to the level of the early 1970s. Young Americans “have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined”, explain Campbell and Putnam. “To them, ‘religion’ means ‘Republican’, ‘intolerant’ and ‘homophobic’.