WASHINGTON -- A presidential candidate's campaign rhetoric can tell us a lot about what he truly believes, but some of Rick Santorum's language has pushed that to the edge.
The former Pennsylvania senator has built much of his political career as the champion of the GOP's social and religious conservatives, a powerful part of the Republican Party's base. Last weekend he tested just how far he could go with his word choices in a speech in Ohio, a key state in the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries.
In that speech, Santorum criticized President Obama's liberal environmental agenda by saying that his views on that issue reflected "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible," but one built upon a radical belief that that the Earth's needs should be placed above the needs of human beings.
He was questioned about this remark on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, but strongly denied he was in any way questioning the president's religious faith. His focus was solely on the president's radical environmental views, he said.
"We're not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective," he told host Bob Schieffer.
There are people in the social conservative movement who question Obama's religious beliefs (I'm not one of them), doubting that he is a Christian, despite his many assertions and statements to the contrary and his years of membership in a Christian church in Chicago.
So Santorum's rhetorical reference to Obama's theology seemed to give his remarks a double meaning, reminding supporters about those who question the president's true religious beliefs.
"I've repeatedly said I don't question the president's faith. I've repeatedly said that I believe the president's Christian," he told Schieffer.
But it didn't help matters when his press secretary, Alice Stewart, told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Monday that he was speaking about the "radical Islamic policies the president has." She later retracted her remark, saying that she "misspoke."
"I was talking about radical environmental policies, and I misspoke. I regret it," she told The Washington Post.
Still, Santorum's choice of the word "theology" is strange -- especially in the context of a discussion of the environment, though it is true that for some global warming extremists it's become a virtual religion.
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives this definition of theology: "The study of God and his relation to the world, esp. by analysis of the origins and teachings of an organized religious community (as in the Christian church)."