Rick Santorum is making social conservatives look bad. While President Obama sets off class warfare and exploits natural income inequality, Santorum appeals to the lowest common denominator of social values in reckless pursuit of a winning political formula. He deepens religious and secular differences, mocks the sacrifices of millions of parents to send their children to college and sounds medieval in trying to upset settled notions about birth control by married couples.
Bill Clinton's campaign was famously reminded that "it's the economy, stupid," and now ol' Stupid, who appears to be working for the Santorum campaign, has to be told that this election is not about Kennedy, college and contraception.
In his reach to religious conservatives besieged by secularists mocking faith in the public square, he opposes the separation of church of state, which most Americans regard as bedrock and bulwark of the republic. John F. Kennedy's eloquent 1960 speech to Protestant ministers of Houston, which put to rest the bigotry that once barred a Catholic from the highest office of the land, made it possible for Rick Santorum, a Catholic, to seek that office.
"'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," JFK declared, and Americans took him at his word. Santorum seems to imagine he's running for pope, and not even a modern one at that. JFK's eloquence only stimulates his gag reflex. He seriously misreads the conservative voter.
To the parents who scrimp, sacrifice and save to educate their children and prepare them for jobs after high school, he warns that a college education is only for "snobs." This diminishes the accomplishments of generations of Americans who used their bootstraps to get them to a campus. (This includes Rick Santorum, who holds degrees from three universities.)
He confuses sexual license with thoughtful intimacy, preventing disease and planning families. He says a President Santorum would warn couples about "the dangers of contraception" and the sexual permissiveness contraception encourages.
"Many of Christian faith have said, 'Contraception is OK,'" he told the Christian blog Caffeinated Thoughts. "It's not OK. It's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. ... If it's not for purposes of procreation, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women." Fewer than one in 10 Americans agree with that, according to polling by the Pew Research Center, but why would a president want to assume the prerogatives of a priest?
This is what happens when a candidate stoops to caricature and distortion of conservative philosophy and belief. It's a dangerous ploy. His sermonettes about sex and separation of church and state are not likely to change anybody's mind, but his derision of a college education hurts the most vulnerable among us. Employment rates are significantly higher for those who have a college degree than for those who don't. Almost two-thirds of the unemployed in the last months of 2011 had no education past high school.
But a college education is also about more than jobs. It's about wanting to know more about more things, and expanding understanding of the great ideas handed down to us. Many of our best colleges and universities have indeed become elitist and politically correct, presided over by academic snobs of narrow minds, and that's what Santorum could rightly address. But advanced learning at its best goes beyond learning "marketable skills." More than ever, we need to develop rigor for thinking analytically, critically and creatively. That's something that colleges have the ability to teach.
What sets apart higher education in America has been its increasing inclusiveness, expanding opportunity to women, minorities and veterans from all economic classes. "Need-based" and "merit-based" loans to get more young men and women through college, for example, are crucial for democracy to remain healthy. The American system of higher education, including hundreds of colleges founded by churches, offers opportunities for both learning and contemplation. Polls show that large majorities of Americans regard a college education as crucial to the pursuit of the American Dream.
Globalization, the rapid revolution in information technology and the breakdown of a consensus of what's important to know have ushered in an age of radical change. But there's nothing snobbish about wanting a college education. Rick Santorum saw it that way himself on his way to Penn State, and then to the University of Pittsburgh and finally to Dickinson College of Law. Most voters, as we saw on Tuesday night, want the same opportunities for themselves and their children.