In 2008, Rick Santorum spoke at Ave Maria University in Florida. There, he tackled the crucial issue of moral decline in America and did so in explicitly religious language. "Satan has his sights on the United States of America," he said. "Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.
"He attacks all of us, and he attacks all of our institutions," he stated.
Now Santorum obviously has a right to his religious beliefs. And polls show that Americans agree with him that Satan exists -- 70 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, believe in the devil, and 69 percent believe in hell.
But Santorum's speech became the story of the day once it was posted on the Drudge Report on Tuesday. Santorum's supporters immediately came to his defense, rightly claiming that Santorum said all of this while he wasn't a presidential candidate and said it in a religious setting.
But Santorum is a presidential candidate now. And that means that the media will dig up his past and blast it into the ether, as they should. The more we know about our candidates, the better. And what we know about Santorum is deeply problematic for social conservatives.
Social conservatism is based on traditional morality; American social conservatism is based on secular explanation of traditional morality. Appeals to the Bible may convince believers, but they alienate non-believers. They end the moral conversation and polarize relationships. Believers end up labeling non-believers atheists; atheists end up labeling believers kooks.
That's the problem for Rick Santorum, too. Moderate to liberal opinion holds that Santorum is a fringe candidate, a religious panderer who revs up the base but loses the middle. There's truth to that perception -- polling shows that Santorum is seen as a more fringe-y candidate than, say, Mitt Romney. More damaging, there is a popular perception that Santorum is paranoid about sex, focused solely and completely on matters of the bedroom. This is just plain false. But Santorum's own language lends support to that false perception. When he talks about Satan using "sensuality" to seduce the United States, he sounds like a tent preacher, rather than a politician. When he rails against the pervasive sexuality of our society -- all of which is true -- he doesn't do so on social grounds, but on moral grounds, slinging around terminology that makes the irreligious blush.
None of this is to say that Santorum is wrong. But it's political suicide.