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.
Americans largely fear the bleed over from religion to politics. We want to see religious values infuse governmental action in some cases -- but in many cases, we don't (contraception, for example). We want to know that our leaders care about the Creator because at root, Americans believe that our rights are God-given, rather than state-granted. But we also want to make sure that religious leaders don't use the levers of government to pursue their own ends. We aren't interested in the state policing our freedoms rather than protecting our rights. "We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion," wrote John Adams, a religious man. "Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
So where does this leave Santorum? It leaves him out in the cold, unless he can find a way to better articulate the socially conservative position. He's a politician, not a preacher. He needs to stop citing religious belief as the source of government values and start citing the social truths that religious beliefs describe. Unwed motherhood is a moral issue, but it's a secular, societal issue, too -- which is why Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former Democrat senator from New York, could make the case against it. Santorum prefers to stay on the moral plane rather than the social one.
That's understandable, and it's even laudable from religious leaders, many of whom have shirked their duty to instill ethics and values into their followers. But it is not the job of the government to instill those values. Morals and values matter from our politicians. But we should not look to them to teach us about religion, for in doing so, they help to dissolve the bonds of conversation that tie us to one another. Social conservatism is a winning argument. But that argument must be won on the religious level outside the government and on the social level inside it.