Santorum, the media, and the religious test

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2012

Of course New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd thinks of Sen. Rick Santorum as a religious fanatic. That’s what one expects from Dowd, whose contempt for the Catholic faith is as strong as her political liberalism. But for the past few days the Drudge Report, ordinarily friendly to conservative candidates, has been sending a similar message about Santorum. When I last checked, Drudge was giving top-of-the-page prominence to eight different stories about a speech that Santorum delivered three years ago, in which he said that "Satan is attacking the great institutions of America.”

Drudge does not make the point explicitly, but by giving the issue such saturation coverage, he is clearly conveying the impression that Santorum’s words were astonishing.

What makes the senator’s statement so remarkable? That he professed a belief in Satan? Tens of millions of American hold the same belief. That he believes Satan is active in American institutions? Well, if you believe in a malevolent being who seeks to harm mankind, wouldn’t you expect him to work his evil through existing institutions? Granted, we don’t expect to hear political candidates ascribe social problems to Satan. But at the time he delivered this speech—again, it was three years ago—Santorum was not a political candidate. He was speaking as a Catholic, to an audience of his fellow Catholics, at a Catholic university.

Now let’s be honest. Even in Catholic circles, one doesn’t hear Satan mentioned frequently. Many Catholics are uncomfortable with any discussion of unpleasant subjects such as the Devil, Hell, or even sin. Unless I am missing the point entirely, the subtle message of the Drudge Report coverage is that those Catholics—the ones who don’t mention things that might upset people--may be acceptable political candidates. But the ones like Santorum, who actually believe in Satan and say so, are beyond the pale. In other words, Catholics are acceptable candidates if and only if they are prepared to soft-pedal certain inconvenient Church teachings. That’s essentially the message that is regularly conveyed, in less subtle ways, by Maureen Dowd.

The US Constitution (Article VI) explicitly provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” So the government cannot assign a formal religious test. But unless I am much mistaken, the America mass media are imposing an informal one. Santorum’s candidacy is questioned not because he is a Catholic, but because he’s that kind of Catholic. And if we could just eliminate that kind of Catholic, then we’d have… Do you see what we’d have? A political test for holding public office.

Nothing in the argument above should be understood as an endorsement of Sen. Santorum. I think he should be questioned sharply about his views and votes on both domestic and (especially) foreign policy. But not about his faith.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - May. 01, 2012 6:38 PM ET USA

    Rick Santorum's big mistake was in not deflecting questions about his faith. It's one thing to show faith by the way a person lives and makes decisions, but another thing to let himself be drawn into a discussion of how those decisions are reached. Romney is a good example of how this should be handled. He simply lives his life according to the precepts of his faith, but refuses to discuss it with the media. Good for him. He knows media types are looking for any crack to exploit.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 23, 2012 9:59 AM ET USA

    This seemingly dark period offers the Church an excellent opportunity to catechize its congregation on the very topics the prevailing culture finds "difficult" if not objectionable. Bishops and priests can hardly expect the laity to live and defend Church teachings if they themselves fail to persuade their congregations of the validity of those teachings. This is a moment of truth, and history will remember those who pick-up the Cross and those who refuse it. Souls are in the balance.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Feb. 23, 2012 6:31 AM ET USA

    That sort of media attitude is prevalent across western societies, including Australia. No wonder the world is drifting in to chaos, declining commitment to marriage and the care of children, greed and hedonism are all signs of the work of Satan.

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Feb. 23, 2012 12:46 AM ET USA

    I'm not sure whether Santorum's Catholic views on, say, birth control or Satan will hurt him with the electorate. Or rather, they probably will hurt him. But I don't think that's the media's fault exactly. Blame those voters for whom it's a deal breaker, or the culture in general, or (sorry to say it) the bishops and priests who go out of their way to avoid discussing those topics, in some cases, sadly because they themselves are unsure of or do not anymore believe those Church teachings.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 22, 2012 9:20 PM ET USA

    "Now let’s be honest. Even in Catholic circles, one doesn’t hear Satan mentioned frequently." And that tasty morsel in my humble opinion tells the story. When we have the Church up to speed, then, and ONLY then can we get "political." Mr Santorum is probably in the 95th percentile as far as orthodoxy. Something that even most people who are called "Catholic" would have trouble handling.

  • Posted by: Defender - Feb. 22, 2012 8:56 PM ET USA

    As you mentioned, most Catholics rarely hear about the Devil,Sin or Hell, let alone the other three of the Four Last Things. Perhaps the time many will spend in Purgatory will be instructive - anyone remember learning about that (and no you can't read about that in the NYT).