Santorum's birth control scruples

Campaign 2012

Newt Gingrich wants to colonize the moon. Mitt Romney is not concerned about the poor. Ron Paul defends the right of Iran to develop nuclear arms. Now, just when Republican primary voters thought that Rick Santorum might be the trouble-free conservative, he has managed to scare the general American public with his comments on birth control.

In a primary season that has been a carnival of the bizarre, this is just the latest sideshow spectacle. The subject came to national attention when the Obama administration, implementing new Obamacare mandates, attempted to force religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals to include coverage for contraception and sterilization in their employee health insurance plans. Though 99 percent of non-virgin women between the ages of 15 and 44 have used artificial birth control, a practice the Roman Catholic Church forbids, people of all religious and political persuasions were appalled at the administration's heavy-handed indifference to religious liberty. (Read Joe Carter's excellent summary of the issue at The Gospel Coalition.)

Media attention then turned to Santorum, who is known to hold very conservative Catholic positions. The press, always hungry for controversy, did not have to go back very far to find this 2010 Caffeinated Thoughts interview with Shane Vander Hart in which Santorum resolved that in his upcoming presidential bid he would talk about the moral dangers of contraception:

"'It's not OK because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They're supposed to be within marriage; they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also procreative. That's the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that's not for purposes of procreation, that's not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can't you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden it becomes deconstructed to the point where it's simply pleasure. And that's certainly a part of it-and it's an important part of it, don't get me wrong-but there's a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special."

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Christians in political office cannot leave their religiously inspired moral views at home. There is always and necessarily a moral dimension to political decision-making, so when you vote for someone, you are voting for that person's entire moral framework. As the senator points out in the interview, contraceptive use is not simply a private matter. (Is anything?) It has profound implications for character formation, family and social stability, and even economic prosperity. Insofar as it has enabled the sexual revolution, the widespread availability of artificial contraception is as legitimate a subject for public policy discussion as that revolution itself.

But if a political leader-whether aspiring or elected-gets too far out ahead of the moral consensus of the community, unless he has remarkable gifts of moral leadership, he can expect to pay a political price. There is a time and manner for addressing these issues. To use a presidential primary campaign as the setting in which to address what almost all Americans see, perhaps mistakenly, as a narrowly parochial moral scruple shows imprudence. A good president chooses his words carefully-as well as when and where to say them-for the greatest public benefit.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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