Politics & Policy

The Devil and Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum at Ave Maria University in 2008

Critics of Senator Santorum’s moral and religious views, especially in the media, have not been wholly scrupulous about identifying what they are before attacking them. He has been described, falsely, as an advocate of banning contraception. A dated joke about birth control made by one of his major supporters has been treated as a campaign scandal. A remark about Obama’s misguided environmental “theology” has been turned into an insinuation that the president is not a Christian.

But the press has not had to invent controversial remarks by Santorum, who has supplied them himself. He has said that Satan is undermining America, in part by corrupting mainline Protestantism; that liberal versions of Christianity are distortions of the creed; that as president he would speak out against birth control, and that states should be free to prohibit it; and that John McCain “doesn’t have any” religious views.

Some of his comments are indefensible, and even some of Santorum’s defensible assertions would have been better left to someone else — someone not seeking the presidency — to say. Santorum’s remarks about Senator McCain were unwise and uncharitable. Nor do we need political leaders to share their theological judgments about the various denominations that call themselves Christian. There is no good reason for a prospective president to pledge to lecture Americans about contraception.

Social conservatives have an understandable and mostly laudable impulse to defend Santorum. He is one of us, he has fought for our causes, and he has the political scars to prove it. Santorum is not one of those Republicans about whom Richard Brookhiser once remarked, “In their hearts they know they’re wrong.” He seems serenely confident that with enough time he can change anyone’s mind on the issues. But he has not always shown that he knows how to pick his battles wisely, or that he understands that voters want a president with a suitably modest conception of a president’s proper role in national life. At an intellectual level Santorum must understand these points: He has not repeated his comment about using the presidency to turn the culture away from contraception. The challenge before him is to marry his self-confidence to a more consistent exercise of discrimination and tact.

If he does not heed this lesson, he risks doing damage to the causes he rightly holds dear. Already his inopportune remarks about contraception have lent an undeserved credibility to liberaldom’s claim that a Republican “war on contraception” rather than a Democratic attack on freedom is what underlies the debate over the Obama administration’s new regulations. 

We have defended Santorum many times in the past and will happily continue to do so. We do wish he would leave himself exposed a bit less often. 

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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