22 May 2005

What The New York Times Didn’t Tell You About America, God, and Rick Santorum

By Jeff Sharlet

Kangaroo on man.

The New York Times wants to be fair to Christian conservatives. So fair, in fact, that it leaves unchallenged the fictions with which some politically-motivated Christian conservatives re-write history. Michael Sokolove’s otherwise excellent profile of Sen. Rick Santorum provides a good example. In paraphrasing Santorum’s view of the role of religion in American life, he writes: “The founding fathers were men of faith. They believed in a nation based on traditional, religiously derived values, the same ‘moral absolutes’ that he finds in his faith.”

As a summary of Santorum’s beliefs, that’s fine. But as unchallenged history, it’s absurd. By failing to demolish that argument, Sokolove lets stand the implication that this is a legitimate, arguable version of American history.

That many of the founders were men of faith is, in fact, arguable; that all were is simply not correct. They they believed in a nation based on “traditional” values is a notion that defies common sense — they had just fought a revolution against the “traditional” values — monarchist; Anglican; screwy on taxes — of the time. The founders’ values may have been “religiously derived,” but only in the sense that the Enlightenment, as a response to older religious ideas, was religiously derived — that is, as a counter-argument.

The last bit — the suggestion that Santorum’s Catholic faith is of a piece with the mostly Deist notions of the founders — is the silliest. The founders may not have been orthodox Protestants, but they were, nearly to a man, anti-Catholic. The “moral absolutes” of which Santorum speaks — an anachronistic phrase, as it happens — would have been hotly contested even by the most pious men in the new nation.

But not, it seems, by The New York Times. In its pursuit of balance, it has tipped the scales in favor of fundamentalists who conform history to the demands not of their faith, but of their politics.

Santorum claims that his positions are not “purely religious,” which, in one sense, is an understatement. Sokolove quotes a lecture on “The Necessity of Truth” Santorum gave to the Heritage Foundation as “a distillation of [Santorum's] philosophy.” In it, Santorum asks “How is it possible, I wonder… to have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes?”

One needn’t advocate such a rejection to know that Aquinas, and even Pope Benedict XVI, would have made quick work of such a query. “Santorum is a man of convictions, not doubts,” writes Sokolove. Nor, apparently of much knowledge of his own theological tradition, a fact that the Times should have pointed out for the sake of accuracy alone.

A moral absolute can only derived from an absolute authority, beyond the realm of argument. Santorum “rejects” the very absolutes he claims to uphold by offering reasons — i.e., the non-absolute work of human minds — in their behalf. Once Santorum engaged in the debate over gay marriage by suggesting that one reason for opposing it was that it could, in his imagination, lead to bestiality, he abandoned the concept of a moral absolute, a truth so self-evident it requires no explanation. Unlike Santorum, an almighty Lord does not need to resort to the illustration of “man on dog” to lend authority to his decrees.

A few other points of interest in this long feature, which despite the examples above is one of the better profiles of a faith-based politician we’ve read:

 Sokolove makes clear that government has long been in the business of subsidizing “faith-based initiatives.” His portrait of the Rev. Herb Lusk’s self-described “‘faith-based nonprofit empire’” is particularly revealing of the interplay between patronage and policy, as Santorum simultaneously supports an effective program for the poor (albeit one that may be discriminatory; Lusk says that opposition to gay rights unites his agenda with Santorum’s) and curries favor — buys votes, some might say — in Philly by passing out federal largesse absent the structural changes that’d make it any more than a hand-out.

 Lusk, in describing how he circumvents church-state rules through free lunches accompanied by preaching, delivers one of the story’s best lines: “‘Jesus always operated around food, banquets and so forth. It’s always been a nice attraction.’”

 “To Santorum… marriage is primarily about procreation and child rearing, and a union without at least that possibility need not be legally sanctioned.” We suspect that Sokolove, or his editor, made a mistake here. It’s hard to believe that Santorum would forbid marriage to, say, senior citizens. No, we’re pretty sure it’s just gays and lesbians he’s worried about. And dogs.

 Santorum wants nonprofits to be able to use the Bible as a teaching tool (which, to be precise, they already can; I’ve done so myself through a nonprofit I co-founded). But, Santorum tells Sokolove, “‘I’ve never read the Bible cover to cover; maybe I should have.’” Instead, says Santorum, he reads magazines about religion.

 “He has become important, a man for the political times,” writes Sokolove, “partly because he understands the Senate’s courtly veneer is just that — a fiction.”