Millions of Catholics and other Christians worldwide are observing Ash Wednesday today, marking the beginning of Lent. For many, this practice entails attending Mass and having black ashes imposed on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Traditionally, the faithful display the ashes until they wear off, although there aren't strict guidelines. Two Republican presidential candidates -- Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- are practicing Catholics; both will participate in the final pre-Super Tuesday debate in Arizona later this evening. It's conceivable that half of the candidates on stage will be wearing ashes, which could have implications beyond representing simple, public expressions of faith. All four Republican candidates have excoriated the Obama administration's recent unconstitutional affront to religious liberty, an ongoing battle in which the Catholic Church is on the front lines. The topic of Obama's anti-conscience mandate is likely to arise during tonight's proceedings, and the optics of up to half of the GOP field articulating fierce opposition to the president's decision while wearing a cross of ashes could be a rather powerful witness.
Rick Santorum's campaign has also been grappling with how to respond to a video that surfaced yesterday, showing the former Senator describing a contemporary "spiritual war" in which Satan is intent on "attack[ing] our institutions." Santorum's comments came during a 2008 speech at Florida's Ave Maria University. (For a thoughtful, non-hysterical take on why some of these remarks are problematic, read this post from Forbes' Josh Barro). Much of the debate surrounding the possibility of a Santorum nomination has centered on whether the candidate is overly theological in his worldview, and how that might impact his electoral prospects and/or potential presidency. If he wears ashes tonight, the resulting images are destined to feature prominently in future media coverage of the intersection of Santorum's faith and political agenda. An interesting consideration in today's media-saturated political climate.
I've reached out to both the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns to ask about this. For what it's worth, Team Newt has informed me that Gingrich isn't planning on attending Mass today -- which the candidate has confirmed, (correctly) pointing out that it's "not a holy day of obligation." The Santorum campaign has not responded to my inquiry, although my colleague Ed Morrissey says his source within Santorum's camp has "no idea" what the former Senator's plans are in this regard. I'll leave you with two clips. The first was flagged by our own Kevin Glass, who had a chuckle at two British news anchors' puzzlement over Vice President Joe Biden's ashes two years ago. "What's happened to his head?"
It's worth noting that Biden, a Catholic, was one of the voices inside the White House warning against the mandate. He was overruled. Finally, here's the Heritage Foundation's video on the topic, featuring commentary from policy experts, lawmakers, and serious thinkers on religion and ethics:
Heritage provocatively calls the new policy's assault on religious liberty "Obamacare's first casualty." Indeed. Last week, I attempted to explain the disparate polling and political framing on this controversy. CNN offers a newer data point, which mirrors Rasmussen's finding that a majority Americans oppose the mandate.
UPDATE - Santorum is campaigning with ash on his forehead in Arizona today, so I'd imagine the marking will stay for the debate.