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"Get Out!" Santorum, Perkins and the Religious Right's Vision of America

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Monday was a lousy day for Rick Santorum's campaign. Reporters repeatedly questioned him about his Sunday evening appearance at Tony Perkins' home church, where, as People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch blog reported, Santorum applauded a pastor who screamed that America was a Christian nation and those who didn't like it should "Get out." It was America's Christian faith that made it a great nation, Terry said, and America's biggest problem is that we now fear men more than we fear God.

Santorum's awkward response when questioned about Terry's comments was that he wasn't really listening all that closely to the pastor introducing him, and didn't agree with all of his comments. By the end of the day, some journalists were moving on to Santorum's foot-in-mouth assertion that the economy wasn't the main issue in the campaign and that he wasn't worried about the unemployment rate.

While the media may understandably focus on Santorum's garbled economic message, his Sunday evening appearance is worth a longer look -- for what it tells us about Santorum and the Religious Right movement that is propelling his campaign.

The church at which Santorum appeared is Baton Rouge, La.'s Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, which Family Research Council President Tony Perkins describes as his home church. Perkins, in fact, was introduced at the event as a "dear friend" of Pastor Terry and as a church elder. Perkins, whose FRC has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for relentlessly promoting false and malicious propaganda about LGBT people, said of Greenwell Springs Baptist, "there is not a better church in the United States of America than right here." So in Perkins's mind, there is no better congregation than the one that applauded wildly at Pastor Terry's "Christian nation" assertions and his seeming suggestion that people who do not worship Jesus Christ should find some other country to live in.

That tells us quite a bit about Tony Perkins. Perkins's record of extremist rhetoric stands on its own (in spite of mainstream media outlets inexplicably viewing him as the responsible voice of the Religious Right), but his pastor's remarks give added insight into this Religious Right leader's view of America. Some excerpts from Pastor Terry's sermon:

I don't care what the liberals say, I don't care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob -- there's only one God, there's only one God, and his name is Jesus.

I'm tired of people telling me that I can't say those words, I'm tired of people telling us as Christians that we can't voice our beliefs or we can no longer pray in public. Listen to me, if you don't love America, and you don't like the way we do things, I got one thing to say: Get out! We don't worship Buddha, we don't worship Mohammed, we don't worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God's son Jesus Christ....

We need change in America... I believe the church needs to be the conscience of the nation. The church needs to be the conscience of our state and our local community... As long as they continue to kill little babies in our mothers' womb, somebody's got to take a stand and stay, "it's not right, God be merciful to us as a nation."

As long as sexual perversion is becoming normalized, somebody needs to stand up and say "God forgive us, God have mercy upon us."

As long as they continue to tell our children they cannot pray in public schools, or pray in open public places today, somebody's got to take a stand and say "God forgive us, God have mercy upon us."

As long as they continue to tear down traditional marriage, listen, God intended for marriage to be between a man and a woman and as long as they continue to attack marriage, somebody needs to take a stand and say "NO! NO! NO! NO!"

... I believe -- it's a spiritual thing -- if we'll put God back in America, put God back in our pulpits, put God back in our homes and in our statehouse and then in Washington, D.C. then we can have revival in America and the Holy Spirit will show up and great and mighty things will happen for this country.

It's all there: the false history that America was created of, by, and for Christians; the myth of anti-Christian persecution in America; lies about the separation of church and state; demonization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. No wonder Perkins is so at home in this church. And no wonder Santorum looked so comfortable on stage with him.

It's worth remembering that back when Religious Right leaders were trying to discredit President Obama based on snippets of sermons given by Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Perkins was part of the mob, calling Wright "un-American" and saying that Obama "has to do more than distance himself. He has to prove that he was not influenced by this message." What's different about this situation, of course, is that both Perkins and Santorum were sitting right on stage during Pastor Terry's rants; both stood and applauded at the end of his remarks.

After Pastor Terry's remarks, Perkins interviewed Santorum at length about his faith and his political positions. (As Right Wing Watch has noted, Perkins says that he is maintaining FRC's policy of not explicitly endorsing a presidential candidate, but in reality he is pulling out the stops for Santorum, and has suggested Gingrich should get out of the race and out of Santorum's way.)

Perkins prefaced his interview with Santorum with a reprise of sorts of Pastor Terry's whining about anti-Christian persecution in America. Perkins complained that politicians had turned issues of morality and religion into political issues and had then told the church to back off. Said Perkins, "I think it's time we made clear that we're not going to back up, we're not going to shut up, and we're not going to give up!" He thanked Pastor Terry for not being afraid of those who have "twisted the Constitution" and tried to "shut up the church." He also said that inviting his "good friend" Santorum to speak at the church was as much a part of walking the Christian faith as serving the poor in Baton Rouge or Central America.

Perkins's first question was to ask Santorum about his faith. Santorum said he had really found the Lord once he was in the Senate (for more details on his faith and his relationship to the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement, see today's Washington Post piece). Santorum said that neither he nor his wife really wanted him to run for president, but that they felt called by God to do so.

Santorum recapped his views on separation of church and state -- complete with the Religious Right's standard talking point that those words don't appear in the Constitution -- and repeated his familiar gross distortion of President John F. Kennedy's speech supporting church-state separation, saying it suggested that people of faith were not allowed to bring their ideas into the public sphere.

Perkins, who has repeatedly charged the Obama administration with hostility to religious liberty and to Christianity, lofted a softball Santorum's way, asking whether the recent controversy over contraception was an attack on religious liberty. Not surprisingly, Santorum insisted that it is, and made clear that the Religious Right's "war on religion" rhetoric will be with us through November's election:

That's why this election is so important this year. If they can do this and get away with this to people of faith, if this is not one of the central issues in this campaign, about what government can do to impose its will upon the people, then this slippery slope will turn into a sliding board, and we will have no religious freedom, we will have government dictate in our lives.

Santorum also used the formulation that caused him some trouble in Illinois, saying the presidential race is not about the economy, jobs, or national security, but about the bigger and more fundamental question of freedom, whether the country would be run by elites who want to govern everyone else or whether we would remain a country of limited government and free people. That's why, he said, it is so important to repeal the federal health care reform law: Otherwise, he said, every American will be dependent on government for their health care and their life, "and when that happens, it's over."

When asked by Perkins to describe his vision for America, Santorum pulled out his copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he described as the "operator's manual" for our government. But, he said, the Constitution is "a potentially dangerous document" if it is not tethered to the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration's language about our rights coming from our creator. The Constitution does not give us rights, he said, it recognizes rights already given to us by God. And, in spite of his later avowals to journalists that he wasn't really paying attention during Pastor Terry's controversial remarks, Santorum referred explicitly to Terry's reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in his closing remarks. Americans don't realize, he said, how revolutionary a concept it was that rights were given to each of us just because we are a creature of a loving God, "the God, as brother said, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

On Tuesday, the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody reported that Dennis Terry had sent him a letter complaining that his views had been misrepresented. From Terry's letter:

...In my remarks I said the following:

"This nation was founded as a Christian Nation. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, there is only one God. There is only one God! And his name is Jesus!

I'm tired of people telling me I can't say those words, I'm tired of people telling us as Christians that we can't voice our beliefs or we can no longer pray in public. Listen to me if you don't love America or you don't like the way we do things I've got one thing to say get out!"

These comments have been misreported saying that I suggested those who do not believe like me should leave the country. I said no such thing. I said those who do not love America and what she stands for should leave. Chief among the principles that America is founded upon is that of religious freedom, and that includes Christianity. I will not be made to feel as if we as Christians should apologize for our faith or that we should take the backseat as America is morally and spiritually being driven in the wrong direction.

Muslims, Hindus, people of different religions or no religions have the right to be here in America, but they do not have the right to force me to be silent while they work to transform our nation.

CBN's Brody backed Terry, calling the controversy "a good example of how the mainstream media just doesn't understand the evangelical worldview" and wants to generate "cable fodder." Says Brody,

Yes the language was strong and bold from the pulpit but reporters interpreted the words incorrectly by painting a much broader brush than what was intended. Evangelicals are used to being portrayed this way so it's not a shocker but it's one more example of why evangelicals are looking to other sources for their news coverage.

Brody's self-serving comments might not have been a "shocker" either, but he fails to note that Terry left off the phrase introducing the quoted statement in which he declared "I don't care what the liberals say, I don't care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation... " He also left off the statement immediately following his exhortation to "get out!" -- "We don't worship Buddha, we don't worship Mohammed, we don't worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God's son Jesus Christ!" Even if one feels charitably inclined toward Pastor Terry, it must be acknowledged that anyone hearing his remarks could quite fairly assume that he was equating Americanism with Christianity. And it should be reiterated that nobody is telling Christians in America that they cannot preach the name of Jesus; nobody is trying to force Pastor Terry to "be silent."

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