THE BLOG
02/29/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Santorum: Religious Radical? A German News Perspective

The homepage on my laptop is set to a website for the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, a widely read and respected news source in Germany. SpiegelOnline has news both in German and in English, in a special International edition. Since I don't have a television in Dresden or subscribe to a newspaper, I generally rely on Spiegel as a primary news source. While browsing the website this morning, an article caught my eye. The article was titled "Qual der Wahl: Romneys Zittersieg in Michigan," a phrase I would roughly translate as "The Agony of Choice: Romney's Shaky Victory in Michigan." As you may guess, the article was about the Republican presidential primaries. The short blurb under the photograph, explaining the article, is what left a truly lasting impression. The "blurb," for lack of a better word, reads:

"Das ist gerade noch mal gutgegangen für Mitt Romney: Der Republikanische Präsidentsbewerber hat bei neuen Vorwahlen in den USA eine Blamage nur knapp vermeiden. Der religiös-radikale Rivale Santorum bleibt stark, die Partei erlebt eine bisher ungekannte Schmutzkampagne."

Here is my translation:

"It just went well for Mitt Romney, again: The Republican Presidential candidate narrowly avoided a disgrace in the latest U.S. Primary. His religious-radical rival Santorum remains strong, the party is experiencing a previously unheard-of smear campaign."

If you are willing to pardon the lack of eloquence in my very literal translation, I see a serious problem here. While everyone would agree that a loss for Mitt Romney in his home state of Michigan would be quite embarrassing indeed, it's the second sentence that concerns me most. Rick Santorum, a potential Republican candidate for President of the United States of America, my home country, is described as, "religiös-radikale" or a "religious-radical."

I would like to reiterate that the Spiegel is a well-respected news source in Germany. This article is not an editorial, something written by some opinionated liberal in a by-blown "Opinions" section of the Spiegel. It is something intended to convey information. The words "radikal" and "radical" are almost the same in German and English, with the same negative connotations.

Lots of arguments could be made about a liberal bias of the media in Germany, about the Spiegel being a somehow illegitimate news source, etc. The fact remains that it is one of the most widely read and respected news sources in Germany, and it has published something that matter-of-factly describes a potential presidential candidate as a religious radical. The rest of the article was rather less controversial, at least from my perspective. It detailed the campaigning leading up to the primary in Michigan, compared and contrasted the Romney-Santorum rivalry with that of President Obama and Hillary Clinton during the last election, and described Obama's involvement in the Michigan primary through a video reminding Michigan of Romney's vote against the auto industry bailout. So how can a supposedly reasonable, unbiased news source use the phrase "religious radical" when describing someone like Rick Santorum without receiving a strong public backlash? There are many possible answers to this question, but the simplest is this: the public agrees with the news source.

The public opinion of Germany toward the U.S. may not be important to most Americans, but it should be: What does it mean for the future of U.S. international politics when a fully developed democracy with a strong economy, a strong power in Europe and the world, can believe that U.S. Americans support a religious radical?