Virtual Voices

Santorum stirs up religion

Campaign 2012

Rick Santorum took a double-digit lead in Michigan and turned it into a single-digit loss because he let himself get off message and took up the religion-in-politics topic.

He complained in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos that Sen. John Kennedy's speech during the 1960 presidential campaign on the separation of church and state-or perhaps personal religion and policy-making-makes him want to throw up. People of faith, he said, should be able to bring their faith into "the public square," borrowing John Richard Neuhaus' phrase (in the video clip below, the religion question comes at the 13-minute mark):

"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up."

Of course, he raises a serious question with a long history. The problem is that though churches can be disestablished and kept out of direct political involvement, religion-especially Christianity- cannot simply be separated from politics. The Christian gospel centers on a living Lord, Jesus Christ, who claims lordship over every aspect of a Christian's life. That claim extends also to Christians who serve in government, even in liberal democratic governments. For a Christian, a dichotomized life, a life that is divided between what is religious and what is supposedly secular, is a compromised and unfaithful life. And it is good for public officials to be under that lordship. Given that Christ's moral law can be summarized as "love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31), His lordship over His disciples in government is a public benefit.

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That means that unless you change Christianity (which political philosophers have been attempting to do for the last 400 years) or legally exclude Christians from civic participation, believers will necessarily bring a distinct moral framework into the voting booth and present it to the electorate when they stand for public office. Of course, committed secularists, Marxists, feminists, and anyone else who has a worked-out ideology does the same thing, if they are honest about it.

These are serious questions, and Rick Santorum has a lot of wisdom to contribute to the discussion. But the heat of a political campaign, especially in the midst of a financial and economic crisis, is not the time to be raising perennial questions of political philosophy. The public is in no mood. A candidate who raises such questions just comes across as unfocused and unprepared for the office. I suspect that was the perception in Michigan.

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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