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How Howard Pew's Vision Gestated Rick Santorum -- and Lessons for Progressive Philanthropy

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Recently, a friend posted on facebook a Clay Bennett cartoon that captured the puzzling religious nature of the Republican platform -- at least as it has been developing in the 2012 primaries. In the cartoon a woman is strapped to the "USA bed" and a priest seems to be doing an exorcism wearing a GOP embroidered stole. The woman cries out, "I distinctly asked for an ECONOMIST."

In the 2012 Republican revival of a certain religiosity in politics, Rick Santorum and his ilk are but the new incarnations of the kind of right wing evangelical conservatives that Howard Pew loved. Of course, both Pew and Santorum hail from Pennsylvania. Pew, an inheritor of the Pennsylvania based Sun Oil Company, and a significant philanthropist, took a religious cast in opposing the jobs and other welfare programs of FDR's New Deal. Pew believed that "... Welfare-state-ism, Marxism, Fascism and any other like forms of government intervention ... antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, to our American way of life and to the dignity of the individual." And he spent his millions promoting just that vision.

Santorum is embodying this old philanthropist's view against "state-ism" and offering again "Spiritual mobilization." Pew even railed against the "social gospel" believing that religion was only about faith and not about social issues.

The Pew Trust promoted "the philosophy that we must first have faith in God before we can enjoy the blessings of liberty." As he opined, "Communism, crime, and delinquency are not caused by poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, bad laws, poor housing, or any other economic, social and political condition. They are caused by sin." Of course, the Pew Trust has now successfully manipulated to become a public charity and lobby (but that is another story). We should be amused when the Pew Research Center publishes -- apparently impartially -- "that distrust of Washington is an American tradition, one which tends to rise and fall inversely with the economy." Of course, Howard Pew and his right wing philanthropist friends gestated just such distrust.

Can America today lean backwards to Pew's version of a scripturally sound political economy at the expense of secular involvement in government?

As we witness the tentacles of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United v. the FEC, I wonder at the walls being torn down between corporation and individual giving. I wonder at the expansion of rightwing non-profit giving and church related giving. We are witnessing an increase in donations on the right -- to non-profits and the benefits of a tax deduction to the donors. And I suspect an increased transfer of nonprofit funds to advocacy, both religious and political and related political action.

Some on the left pretend strategically, that Citizens United may be limited to only overturning Federal Election Law. They argue (if at all) that the tax regulations limiting nonprofit advocacy will hold. I think not -- and unless President Obama can get a different Supreme Court -- that train/crusade has left the station. And obviously the restrictions will end explicitly if Romney or Santorum become president.

With Gates' and Buffett's philanthropy being relatively nonpartisan versus the Koch brothers', and with the Ford Foundation and others appearing more timid than in the past, the Right's opposition to political advocacy by foundations is dying. Gone are the days the Right feared foundations dabbling in overturning segregation or promoting women's rights. The new heirs to segregation -- or if not racial inequality -- then certainly gross income inequality and other forms of inequality -- seem sure that they control the money and can win on the playing field of great wealth players.

When I was Executive Director of New Jersey Head Start our local program directors were horrified that the Bush administration (and his courts) allowed Head Start centers, though federally funded, when affiliated with churches to hire and fire based on religion. With the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United -- I see Howard Pew's theocratic vision being one step closer: first allowing churches openly to combine their religious and social work (which caused the recent contraception debacle) and now opening political advocacy to charities.

Rick Santorum is probably the greatest beneficiary of these tumbling walls so far. The court has formally declared that churches can receive federal funds -- imposing religious beliefs in a previous secular partnership between charities and the government. And now with Citizens United, it empowers Rick Santorum's theocratic views and give nonprofits significant means to lobby. The end of the divide between education and advocacy and political action that prevailed so long is here.

The right is running with this new understanding. Progressives needs to get off their butt and out of their self imposed straight-jackets. President Obama, at least, has said he will not unilaterally disarm -- and he's finally off to the races with SuperPACs.

The progressive charities, for the moment anyway, should take what the Court has given them: we can use advocacy, whether religious or political, in our activities. I think we have not only our own progressive wealth holders but a majority of small donors who helped finance the Obama campaign -- and will do so in the new money regime. Olivier Zunz argues in "Philanthropy in America" that the majority of the Supreme Court believes that this is a necessary condition of freedom in a strong democracy. If progressives don't adopt to this new playing field -- at least in 2012 -- well then Santorum and the theocrats will change our democracy in ways too awful to contemplate -- and we have only ourselves to blame.