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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Santorum On Bush As the “First Catholic President”

In my last post, a long meditation on the disturbing political implications of the religious right’s “prophetic stance” against American society, I quoted extensively from a brilliant review by Alan Wolfe in The New Republic, but in pursuing my own theories, didn’t completely do justice to Wolfe’s piece. But after reading the profile of Rick Santorum in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, one of Wolfe’s observations struck me as especially trenchant: “In these days of conservative ecumenicalism…all that matters on the right is whether your beliefs are conservative and not what your beliefs actually are.” That’s certainly true of Santorum. According to Michael Sokolove’s profile, Santorum in 2002, alluding to Toni Morrison’s famous description of Bill Clinton as “the first African-American president,” called George W. Bush “the first Catholic president.” Sokolove asked Santorum the obvious question: what about America’s actual Catholic president, John F. Kennedy? And Santorum basically said Kennedy wasn’t much of a Catholic at all, because, like many Catholic Democrats today, he “sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing.”Bush, on the other hand, is a better Catholic than JFK, suggests Santorum, because his views are consistent with “Catholic social teaching.” So there you have it: two thousand years of scripture, Church Fathers, creeds, counsels, scholastic philosophy, monastic traditions, saints and martyrs, liturgy, and magisterium, are hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the Right’s contemporary obsession with abortion and gay rights. Despite the inelegance of his words, Santorum serves as an eloquent example of Wolfe’s point about the debasement of conservative Christianity by its essentially secular dedication to partisan politics.

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