Steve Chapman
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Why is Rick Santorum running for president? Because America is in trouble and he knows why.

Faith and family are under attack. "Moral relativism," he warns, is breeding "aberrant behavior." Gay rights advocates are bent on "secularization." Liberals have brought about a "decaying culture."

Santorum insists that gay marriage will destroy the family, "the very foundation of our country." Lamenting the scandal of pedophile priests, he wrote in a Catholic publication: "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

It's a familiar line of argument among religious conservatives, and it has the virtues of clarity, simplicity and plausibility. But there is one notable weakness in his case: a mass of evidence that amounts to a thunderous refutation.

Santorum takes it for granted that religious belief, at least of the Christian variety, is a powerful force for moral behavior. That's not apparent from looking at this country.

He thinks America has been on a downhill slide for many years, thanks to feminism, gay rights, pornography and other vile intruders. But where is the evidence that the developments cited by Santorum are producing harmful side effects?

In the past couple of decades, most indicators of moral and social health have gotten better, not worse. Crime has plummeted. Teen pregnancy has declined by 39 percent. Abortion rates among adolescents are less than half what they were.

The incidence of divorce is down. As of 2007, 48 percent of high school students had engaged in sex, compared to 54 percent in 1991. What "decaying culture" is he talking about?

It sounds obvious that when people practice a religion that preaches strong morality and responsible conduct, they will behave better than people who follow their own inclinations. But what is obvious is not always true.

America is a good place to judge the value of faith in promoting virtue. There is a great deal of variation among the 50 states in religious observance -- and a great deal of variation in social ills. It turns out that religiosity does not translate into good behavior, and disregard for religion does not go hand-in-hand with vice. Quite the contrary.

Consider homicide, which is not only socially harmful but a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in America, according to a Gallup survey, with 63 percent of people saying they go to church "weekly or almost weekly." But Mississippians are far more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

On the other hand, we have Vermont, where people are the most likely to skip church. Its murder rate is only about one-fourth as high as the rest of the country. New Hampshire, the second-least religious state, has the lowest murder rate.

These are no flukes. Of the 10 states with the most worshippers, all but one have higher than average homicide rates. Of the 11 states with the lowest church attendance, by contrast, 10 have low homicide rates.

Teen pregnancy also tends to follow a course precisely the opposite of what Santorum preaches. Almost every one of the most religious states suffers from more teen pregnancy than the norm -- while the least religious ones enjoy less.

What impact does gay marriage have on how kids handle sex? Massachusetts, the first state to legalize it, has less teen pregnancy than the country as a whole. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont, which have also sanctioned same-sex unions, are also far better than average.

Does gay marriage undermine the health and stability of heterosexual marriage? Not so you can tell. Massachusetts has the nation's lowest divorce rate. Iowa and Connecticut are also better than most. Vermont and New Hampshire are about average. In the Bible Belt, by contrast, marriages are generally more prone to break up.

Santorum presents himself as a man of faith who insists on confronting stark facts that many people would rather ignore. In fact, in his indictment of tolerance, individual conscience, sexual freedom and secular morality, he is not telling truths but spinning sanctimonious fairy tales. American culture is not sick, and Santorum is no healer.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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