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Those 'Social' Issues

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The "social issues" have popped up in the Republican presidential campaign, courtesy of Rick Santorum, causing Democrats to drool, left-wing pundits to twirl their broadswords in the air and various Republicans to turn green, fearful of alienating key voting blocs. The horror, the horror -- can't the party's candidates just keep their searchlight trained on the economy?

Probably not. The task of governing the United States of America seems not to accommodate that strategy any more. Current screeching about Santorum's introduction of religion into the campaign calculus reinforces that point.

Santorum -- a candidate exceeded only by Ron Paul when it comes to implausibility as a Republican presidential nominee -- is playing his long suit when he talks about religion and family and morality. There's not much else to distinguish him from the rest of the field. What appears, to many, as his old-fashioned views on religion (including contraception) call forth from many others a gratitude that warrants inspection.

"What kind of country do we live in," he inquired, rhetorically, on ABC the other day, "that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?"

Now that's a stretch -- nobody is saying only "people of nonfaith" have a license to speak up -- but the people to whom Santorum is talking know what he means: To wit, "people of faith" often find their concerns downplayed, depreciated, excluded or ignored, on the ground that church-state separation forbids undue emphasis on those concerns.

Which it doesn't. No such doctrine as church-over-here-and-government-over-there has ever existed among us. It's a made-up notion, providing cover to those who see religious expression, especially Christian, as a barrier to the fulfillment of policy ideals such as abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage and secularization of public places (e.g., schools) formerly hospitable to religious expression of a sort.

Changing times brings their own rationales. If today we're for abortion, it's because we view the individual woman's right to "control her body" as trumping any appeal to life's sacred dimensions. Religion itself becomes offensive to the extent it upholds understandings no longer in favor. Liberal churches (on this showing) are OK: They let a person do as he or she wants to. Conservative churches, by refusing to give the zeitgeist free run of the place, show their bigotry and inhumanity. Why, they think unborn life deserves protection. Shut those people up! Show 'em who's in charge!

Think the average Santorum voter doesn't know what's afoot here? Use the First Amendment as a pretext to shove aside non-liberal viewpoints on morality -- viewpoints with some grounding in Scripture or church tradition -- and the sailing gets a lot smoother.

The economy is an absolutely urgent topic for discussion, possibly even some rabble-rousing, as liberals sit tight on the welfare state apparatus they built and now want to protect by renewing Barack Obama's White House lease. Nonetheless, there can't be any excluding the social issues, whether or not one likes Santorum's dour and preachy manner of raising them.

The habits of a free people -- for stability, thrift, obedience to law, respect for others' rights, etc. -- are the formative elements in national character, without which you aren't going to have much that resembles freedom. Without freedom, you aren't going to have much of anything. Certainly, you aren't going to have an economy that produces jobs and prosperity on any long-term, contrasted with a Chinese-like short term, authoritarian basis.

The social issues aren't enjoyable to talk about in an election year -- least of all a year in which an irrational tax system and the federal takeover of the health care system urgently require attention. That's life. You don't solve problems by positing their triviality or even nonexistence.

Conservatives who couldn't, on pain of waterboarding, envision a "President Rick Santorum" should lay off him as much as possible for the nonoffense of raising issues that -- woe and alas -- have to be raised; issues, more to the point, that go far toward explaining why we're in the mess we're in right now.

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