WASHINGTON (CNA/EWTN News) — “Are you coming down to the altar?” the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s executive director Gary Marx asked after one especially evangelical speech at its annual conference June 4.
But despite the more than occasional revival-like feel, Catholic social teaching was on display at this important stop for potential Republican presidential nominees.
A Coalition-commissioned poll last November found that conservative Christians were a key constituency in the midterm elections that changed the majority in the House of Representatives from Democrat to Republican — creating what pro-life stalwart Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has called “the most pro-life House of Representatives in American history.”
White evangelicals represented 30% of those who voted, 78% voting Republican and Massgoing Catholics 12%, 58% voting Republican.
Not surprisingly, the Coalition, founded by former Christian Coalition president and Georgia Republican chairman Ralph Reed, attracted both elected leaders like House
Speaker John Boehner and those seeking, or considering seeking, the Republican nomination for president to its June 3-4 gathering.
Those who spoke to the 1,500 conservative activists, students and leaders included: Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, former Godfather’s pizza chairman Herman Cain, former Utah governor and ambassador to China John Huntsman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and even Donald Trump.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, was out of the country and sent a video to address the conference.
Besides the prominence of Catholics during the general session, the Coalition conference included a breakout session devoted to Catholic political activism that was sponsored by Deal Hudson and Matt Smith of Catholic Advocate.
The session included National Organization of Marriage chairman Maggie Gallagher and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser, both responsible for electoral victories on issues that others would consider putting aside.
In a Saturday-night benediction, the pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Annandale, Va., led the gathering in prayer that Catholics in their political activism are faithful to “the social-justice principle” of subsidiarity.
Santorum, the sole Catholic among the presidential primary contenders in attendance, acknowledged that he is considered “the social-conservative candidate” for his congressional leadership on restricting abortion and protecting traditional marriage.
But in his address, he painted a holistic portrait of moral leadership, manifested in not just social but economic and foreign policy, rooted in the God-given dignity of every human person and protecting his freedom.
Santorum also compared himself to his potential rivals for the Republican nomination: “I used to be like a lot of folks” who “check the boxes” on social issues. But he added he is “very proud of the fact” he became “the point man” on issues of life and marriage and that this shows his “passion to lead.”
He reminded the audience that he, unlike many of the other candidates, spoke at the same conference last year and that he’s a mainstay on these issues.
“They’ll check the boxes,” he said about unnamed competitors. “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t just take the pledge; I take the bullets.”
In his speech, Santorum tied his leadership on the welfare-reform legislation that Democratic President Bill Clinton would sign to “the social-conservative belief in the dignity of every human person.”
That means the unborn and that absolutely also means “the poor in our society. We need to provide an opportunity for everybody in America.”
“What government was doing by subsidizing poverty was destroying the family,” he said.
Focusing on the current economic situation, Santorum told those gathered: “We ended a federal entitlement.” We can, in fact, do that, he assured the conference attendees. We can do it “if we paint a vision that isn’t just about dollars and cents.”
He described a positive vision that reaches across ideological lines: “Social conservatives understand that the bigger the government, the smaller the individual. Social conservatives are leading on these issues.”
That vision is integral to his message, which he has been delivering in frequent visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as in written commentary and his almost two-year run as a guest host for former Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s national radio show.
While conservative Iowans would unsurprisingly be fertile ground for Santorum, he told CNA that he is encouraged by what he hears even in less conservative areas and crowds.
Expectations are low for Santorum’s bid. But the senator believes that could be a “benefit.” He said people he hears from are “not clamoring for a moderate. They are not clamoring for star power or something new or different.”
Recalling how Ted Kennedy came to work with him on welfare reform, he said, “If you can lay out a compelling narrative, you can move the dial. I believe I can.” He believes if he can work with Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, he can “bring the middle together.”
He also believes he can appeal to independents and those Democrats that Reagan was able to reach.
His presidential bid, he says, is about “reclaiming our founding principles, which people still agree with.” And “implement them in a way that makes sense.”
“I feel called to do this,” Santorum said. “If you feel called to run for president, you feel called to run for president. You feel called to win.”
And, so, he’s not focusing on only Iowa or only one issue or another.
President Barack Obama, he said, “is doing really injurious things to this country.” Santorum believes he has a “fundamental misunderstanding of what America is.”
Santorum cited an economic speech Obama delivered in April as primary evidence. President Obama credited Medicare and Social Security as making the United States a “great country.”
However, Santorum worries entitlement programs can be “dependency drugs.” The health-care legislation passed last year is the ultimate example for Santorum, who said repealing it would be his first priority as president.
In his official campaign announcement on June 6, two days after his Faith and Freedom appearance, he called President Obama’s health-care plan “the lynchpin” of a philosophy that “believes that America’s greatness is in government, not its people.”
Echoing the tea-party movement, Santorum believes what makes America exceptional is its commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Santorum wants to “remind people who we are, how we got here, and what we have to do to get it back.”
But can he win? It’s the most frequently asked question and the easiest way to dismiss him: He lost his last race for re-election by 17 points in 2006, a dismal year for Republicans.
Santorum — who was encouraged by winning a South Carolina straw poll in May — says: “I’ve run against three Democratic incumbents, and I’m three for three.”