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Veteran Pol Santorum Emerges From Iowa With a Timely Message

A Different Kind of Catholic Candidate


| Posted 1/4/12 at 9:47 PM


When Rick Santorum came in a close second to Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucuses on Tuesday, Jan. 4, it was a surprise to pundits, who had only just started to consider him as a serious candidate in the crowded Republican presidential-nomination fight. And it could mark the emergence of a different kind of Catholic candidate in American politics, one who refuses to give up the fight on social justice — substantively and rhetorically — in practice and linguistics.

For someone who lost his last election by 18 points and literally raised his hand during a debate this fall to get a moderator’s attention, coming in second by eight votes against a candidate with much more money and organization was a dramatic victory.

Santorum, was named one of the top “evangelicals” in American public life by Time magazine back when he was in the Senate, where he served for two terms from Pennsylvania. Catholics aren’t often considered evangelizers; in politics we can be better known for being the privately-opposed-but-publicly-cowardly on the most important of those social-justice issues, protecting the most innocent, the unborn.

The designation was an acknowledgement of a public witness, an integration of faith in public life. In the run-up to this campaign, in fact, Santorum consciously addressed the pre-eminent conventional model of the American Catholic politician, our one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, challenging Kennedy’s Houston speech in which he insisted that a president’s religious faith be “his own private affair” “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

In that spirit, Santorum spoke at his victory party in Des Moines about his “friendship” with God. “I’ve survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God: For giving me his grace every day, for loving me, warts and all, I offer a public thanks to God,” he said.

And although Santorum has not led with the social issues he is so well known and reviled for — just Google his name; you will see a snapshot in vitriol from activists seeking to advance the redefinition of marriage in particular — they are an integral part of who he is and what his legislative record has included. And now they will fuel some of the attacks and scrutiny prompted by his near victory.

“God has given us this great country to allow his people to be free, has given us that dignity because we are a creation of his. We need to honor that creation,” he said in Iowa. “And whether it’s the sanctity of life in the womb or the dignity of every working person in America to fulfill their potential, you will have a friend in Rick Santorum.”


In a radio interview the next morning, former Education Secretary William Bennett thanked Santorum for “the linking between the economic and the social.”

“You can’t have limited government without strong families. You can’t have a successful economy without strong families,” Santorum said in reply, as he has tirelessly taken his message to Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

And while it may have sounded merely like a stump speech — part biography, part vision — when Santorum spoke about “freedom” on caucus night, it introduced a broader audience to an ongoing conversation he has been having and now may get to have on a more prominent platform. “The essential issue in this race is freedom: whether we will be a country that believes that government can do things for us better than we can do for ourselves,” Santorum said.

That message of subsidiarity echoes statements made by another Catholic Republican, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, over the past year In correspondence   with New York Archbishop and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference Timothy Dolan, Ryan has addressed Catholic social teaching publicly and seriously in a conscious and discerning way — and on more than abortion. On a variety of policy issues, the congressman has weighed how best to truly respect the dignity of human life.

“As figures ranging from David Brooks to George Willhave commented, where Santorum adds something distinctive to present economic debates is his willingness to envelop them in substantive moral arguments,” notes Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute.

“That’s why Santorum often refers to 1) the moral foundations of free economies and 2) the various ways in which the welfare state has had such destructive effects on society. Many libertarians (though not all) are uncomfortable discussing the first subject, while most modern liberals more or less close their eyes to the second,” says Gregg. 

As a former member of Congress from steel country and a first-generation Italian-American, Santorum communicates as one passionately invested in the continuing story of America, taking it directly to working class and out-of-work Americans who want to continue to tell and be a part of that story.

Only Just Begun

In this way, Gregg suggests, Santorum harkens back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights about democracy in America. Toqueville was “among the first to sound warnings about democracy’s potential for sliding into the soft despotism that results when citizens start voting for those politicians who promise to use the government to give them whatever they want, while politicians deliver — provided the citizens do whatever the government says is necessary to meet everyone’s wishes (such as radically diminish economic freedoms). Welcome to the moral-economic disaster otherwise known as the European Union.”

The debate that Paul Ryan has sought to advance, that Speaker of the House John Boehner and his caucus have taken on, that the Tea Party is so motivated by is a proper stewardship of government. One that protects freedoms and doesn’t infringe on them. One that maximizes, too, our individual capacities and heart for compassion, not raising generations of dependents tied to an unsustainable government.

This, too, of course, is Tocquevillian. As Gregg puts it: “The other argument Tocqueville brings to the table is that the American experiment in ordered liberty — including in the economy — relied heavily upon Americans addressing social and economic problems through forms of voluntary association. Americans, he noted, didn’t just wait for the state to “just do something.” Nor did they lobby for government welfare contracts that tied them to the state’s purse strings and hence top-down direction. Though Tocqueville noted that Americans often presented such activities as a matter of self-interest, he also stressed that a basic concern for the well-being of one’s neighbor was at work beneath the surface.”

This has the potential to be an inviting conversation for someone who wants to communicate it, who is able to communicate it amidst the noise of a campaign, where past comments and leadership on hot-button issues will sitr up radical and organized activists.

Gregg observes: “What’s missing from the contemporary conservative and free-market case for economic liberty and limited government are concepts and language that tie together the moral case for 1) robust economic freedom, 2) the restraint of government power and 3) the responsibility that we have to those in need.”

This is not, however, “compassionate conservatism” redux, Gregg quickly adds, “not least because compassionate conservatism quickly morphed … into an unseemly rush for government contracts, rather than getting the state out of activities it’s notoriously bad at doing. Instead, it’s about matching freedom in the economy with creating the space for Americans to address social problems which decades of the welfare state and billions of dollars have manifestly failed to reduce. Unfortunately, the candidate for president with such an agenda — one which integrates America’s relentlessly entrepreneurial drive and wealth-creation abilities with Americans’ undoubted generosity with their time and resources — has thus far failed to emerge.”

Santorum’s effective first-place tie in Iowa with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney puts him in a new media spotlight, gives him new fundraising and therefore organizational opportunities, though it’s in no way a guarantee of much of anything beyond Iowa.

Still, he’s been a frequent visitor to New Hampshire and South Carolina. While he promises to surprise in the former next week, expectations for him are higher in the latter. But with Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman still in the race — only Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropped out in the wake of her sixth-place finish in Iowa — the Republican nomination process has only just begun.

At the very least, Santorum’s integrated approach to social and economic policies could help the eventual nominee, whomever he is, become more fluent on issues of effective, pragmatic moral leadership that speak to voters hungry for just that.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.