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Rick Santorum and the Threat to Social Conservatism

From the attack on religious freedom represented by the ObamaCare HHS regulations to the Planned Parenthood gang-tackle on the Komen foundation, it's obvious that the left is moving aggressively to consolidate support and open new fronts in the culture war.

But the rise of Rick Santorum raises concerns that social conservatives may have almost as much to fear from their allies as from their adversaries.  Just last week, Senator Santorum managed to transform the debate over the HHS regulations from an issue of religious liberty – uniting conservatives, libertarians, and other Americans of good will in opposition to the ObamaCare overreach – into an issue of contraception.  His history of remarks denouncing contraception as “harmful to women” and “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be” has effectively (though inadvertently) shifted the controversy away from the autocracy of ObamaCare to the merits of birth control.

As a result, this staunch defender of social conservatism has, ironically, divided Republicans and weakened the case against the HHS regulations.  Worse, he’s given Democrats and their allies in the press the opportunity to marginalize Republicans by inaccurately portraying them as hostile both to contraception (a minority view even among conservatives) and to women’s rights.  In an election where the support of female suburban voters may well be pivotal, this is a real problem.

Statements in Senator Santorum’s 2005 book likewise appeared to take aim at women, or at least those who work: “For some parents, the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home.”  For most women, there are few issues more agonizing than deciding how to reconcile family and career obligations; it is not surprising that many would be offended and angry at the clear implication that simple greed or selfish ambition are driving forces in that delicate calculation.

More recent comments – ranging from Senator Santorum’s characterization of President Obama’s flawed environmental policy as “phony theology,” to analogizing homosexual behavior to bestiality, to his condemnation of government support for prenatal testing (on grounds that it encourages abortion) – highlight a penchant for framing otherwise defensible positions in a way that alarms and repulses all but the most committed social conservatives, or those with the time and patience to sort through the nuances of his arguments.  Unfortunately, confronted with a hostile press corps too often prone to distortion and a Chicago machine dedicated to the destruction of the opposition, it’s unlikely that recession-weary voters this fall will be either willing or able to subject Santorum’s analysis to close philosophical analysis.

Rick Santorum is certainly a patriot, and a man of courage, conviction and principle, but he lacks the cheerful demeanor and deft touch that mark the most effective proponents of social conservatism.   Indeed, the danger Senator Santorum poses to social conservatism is grave, and it is real.  First, his history of inflammatory statements coupled with a persona that can come across as dour and preachy opens him – and social conservatism – to easy, ugly caricature that could marginalize and cripple the movement disastrously for years to come.  

Finally, Senator Santorum’s tendency (understandable in a candidate) to discuss social conservatism in the context of government policy overlooks the central role that religion and the culture must play, if the ideals he so clearly cherishes are ever to win the day.  In an era when Americans are coming to recognize the dangers of an over-powerful, too-intrusive government, choosing a nominee who seems all-too-willing simply to swap his own (socially conservative) government policies for President Obama’s (left-wing) ones cedes Republicans’ most powerful rallying cry for retaking The White House this fall:  It’s all about freedom.  


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