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Santorum, Obama and Phony Theology

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"The president has reached a new low in this country's history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before." With these words (and others), GOP candidate and former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator, Rick Santorum, revealed that apparently he wants to be President of the United States in the worst way. Speaking in Ohio about, of all things, energy policy and domestic energy production, Santorum declared that President Obama was practicing "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible." Later in the weekend, on CBS's "Face the Nation," Santorum sought to clarify his remarks by conceding that he actually does believe Obama's consistent statements about being a Christian. But Santorum immediately followed that concession with an attack on radical environmentalism, viewing it as some kind of threatening theology. And finally, on Sunday in Georgia, he seemed to equate Germany under Hitler to the U.S. today under Obama.

Throughout all of these campaign contretemps, one wishes Santorum, well, would act both a bit more presidential and a bit more Christianly, especially given his own devout Catholicism and the long-standing Catholic commitment to a dialogic society. One also wishes Santorum would evidence a bit more James Madison and a lot less Machiavelli. James Madison is not known as one of our greatest presidents, but undeniable is the fact that, among the Founding Fathers, he was one of the most careful, cerebral members of our founding generation, especially when it came to the relationship between politics and religion.

Madison witnessed first-hand religious persecution in his native Virginia as the state imprisoned Baptists for preaching, singing and worshiping without an official state license. Madison worked tirelessly for the constitutional language forbidding any kind of religious test for holding federal office, and also for the two incomparably important religion clauses of the First Amendment. He once referred to religious freedom as promising "a lustre to our country." According to former federal judge and devout Catholic John T. Noonan, Jr., "It is Madison whom American experience has vindicated."

Unfortunately, we have seen vitriolic and massively un-Madisonian conduct in presidential elections prior to this one. In 1800 Jefferson was accused of not only being an infidel but it was claimed he would burn Bibles and make everyone speak French. Lincoln was accused of being a heretic and a "scoffer" of Christianity throughout his political career, and was castigated by many for attending the theater on Good Friday! The election of 1908 brought spurious attacks on William Howard Taft's character and theological bona fides due to his being Unitarian and therefore obviously untrustworthy. In the election of 1960, former president Harry Truman declared that if folks in the South voted for Richard Nixon, they'd go to hell, leading John Kennedy to warn Truman against mixing politics and religion! And, of course, as Santorum himself should know, in 1960 Kennedy got it from about every corner on account of his Catholicism.

In spite of these (and other) examples in U.S. presidential history, Santorum's comments were over the top. In his accusations about Obama waging a "war on religion" and his "taking faith and crushing it," Santorum reminds me of Churchill's retort about an arrogant opponent in Parliament: "There but for the grace of God goes God." Santorum's hellacious hyperbole hints at his taking a page from the playbook of then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000; in speaking to fellow believers, Bush was instructed, "Signal early and signal often." Yet, Bush spoke, at times in thinly veiled God-talk, about who he was without denigrating the religion or theology of his opponent.

Santorum has not declared, as have others, that Obama is a Muslim or an atheist or an agnostic; he has not questioned directly Obama's Christianity. Rather, he calls into question Obama's theology, as if this were a contest for an endowed chair at a seminary and not a contest for our highest constitutional office. A "Theologian-in-Chief" is not what Madison and his colleagues had in mind nor is it what we need today. John Kennedy broke the stained glass ceiling in 1960, and in 2012 Mitt Romney may perform a similar feat with respect to Mormonism. But there should not and must not be any kind of theological litmus test for occupying the Oval Office.

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