The First Principles of Rick Santorum


By MOLLY WORTHEN

Eric Gay/Associated PressRick Santorum prayed before speaking at Oral Roberts University on Thursday.

Last month, when prominent evangelical pastors and political activists emerged from their Texas powwow to announce that they had anointed Rick Santorum as their standard-bearer, the blogosphere pronounced the endorsement too little, too late, and kept all sights firmly on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — until this week.

Santorum’s string of victories on Tuesday took the mainstream media by surprise: he is so extreme that they have had a hard time taking him seriously. His theocratic statements seem self-caricaturing. He has asserted that the right to privacy “does not exist,” equated homosexual sex with “man on dog” relations, and compared the campaign against same-sex marriage to the war on terror.

Yet Santorum’s surge in momentum as the primary campaign moved to the evangelical heartland was a long time coming, and not because his social positions are an exercise in garden-variety bigotry. Evangelicals’ embrace of Santorum illuminates a crucial shift in American political culture: their honeymoon with the Tea Party seems to be over. They have turned away from the cries for small government and liberty — about which they have always been ambivalent — to rekindle their love affair with theocratic Catholicism. Santorum’s statements reflect not knee-jerk prejudice, but something much more powerful: philosophically reasoned prejudice, based on centuries of Roman Catholic natural law.

One dismissive reviewer of Santorum’s 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer that Santorum is “one of the finest minds of the thirteenth century.” (An opponent once said the same of that other provocative Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr.) This is no insult: it is the heart of Santorum’s appeal to conservative evangelicals.

Santorum attacks gay rights and abortion not by spouting biblical verses or goading his audiences’ gut feelings, but by playing the medieval scholastic theologian and reasoning from first principles. There is no need to quote St. Paul to prove that homosexual sex is an affront to the natural order and same-sex marriage a detriment to civilization: Santorum appeals to natural law, what he calls the Catholic Church’s “operating instructions for human beings.”

“Human beings have a purpose, or ‘end,’ a telos,” Santorum writes in his book. According to the tradition of natural law, every part of our bodies has a telos too. In the case of our genitalia, that natural end is heterosexual sex for the purpose of procreation. It follows that marriage between a man and a woman “is fundamentally natural,” Santorum writes“The promise of natural law is that we will be the happiest, and freest, when we follow the law built into our nature as men and women. For liberals, however, nature is too confining, and thus is the enemy of freedom.” Later on, he elaborates on his jaundiced view of freedom with a quotation from Edmund Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their appetites.”

How could Tea Partiers who once dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Live Free or Die” flags now swoon to reasoning like this? The truth is that the Tea Party’s demand for “strict construction” of the Constitution and a return to the Founders’ “true intentions” is not really a cry for unfettered freedom. It is an attempt to uncover the immutable, divine will of the Founders — a homegrown version of natural law that would provide grounds for forbidding abortion, same-sex marriage and “Obamacare” in the name of American liberty.

Santorum was well ahead of the Tea Party on this. In “It Takes a Family,” he drafted John Adams and other founders into the ranks of natural lawgivers who believed “America’s greatness lay in a good, a moral, and a virtuouspeople.” Liberty was a good thing, but the Founders sought “well-ordered liberty” through “moral cultivation” of citizens. In other words, Santorum has shown conservative evangelicals that they can have their liberty and legislate private morality too.

“Our Constitution granted unprecedented liberty to the individual,” Santorum wrote in an op-ed essay in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007. “But liberty without virtue devolves into license; and license, into chaos.” It follows, then, that the “right to privacy” is a sham invented by feminists and homosexuals to protect licentious behavior that endangers the greater social good and defies natural law.

Santorum’s statements reflect not kneejerk prejudice, but something much more powerful: philosophically reasoned prejudice, based on centuries of Roman Catholic natural law.

Santorum is not a fundamentalist frothing at the mouth, screeching out biblical commands (he cites “Divine Providence” often in his writing, but rarely turns to scripture). When liberal students booed after he expressed his views on same-sex marriage at an event in New Hampshire, he did not shout them down, but tried to engage them in a philosophical discussion.

Each point that Santorum makes follows logically from the preceding premise. Along with Catholic public intellectuals like Robert George, a political theorist at Princeton, and the political commentator and the Lutheran minister-turned-Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, Santorum embodies the renaissance of Catholic natural law in American political life—and the apotheosis of its seductive effect on conservative Protestant evangelicals.

This modern enthusiasm for natural law has a long history. During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians (called “scholastics” for the rationalistic style of argument that grew out of the monastic schools) drew on ancient Greek and Roman tradition to hone natural law as a set of universal rules for ethical action that God has made known to pagans and Christians alike. In the 19th century, when Rome found itself beleaguered by the encroaching forces of modern learning and democracy, Leo XIII declared that Catholics should revive St. Thomas’s teachings.

Leo’s command started a worldwide revival of natural law as a means of speaking to the secular modern age. The scholastic revival was a complex movement, and was not exclusively conservative in orientation: in the 1940s, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain drew on natural law’s implications for human dignity to develop the idea of universal human rights.

While Protestant fundamentalists — the ancestors of today’s evangelicals — were losing their battles against modernists in America’s mainline churches and seminaries, Catholics were focusing on ideas and nurturing academic centers of philosophy and political thought. The cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals in founding the Moral Majority in 1979 was partly the result of political expedience, but it was also the fruit of evangelicals’ longtime admiration of the Catholic ability to communicate a conservative interpretation of the Bible in the secularized language of natural law and win mainstream intellectual respect.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has spearheaded dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics on this subject, hopes that natural law offers a “common moral grammar” that religious and secular people will both accept. It’s one thing for evangelical leaders like Cromartie and the Christian Right kingmakers in Texas to speak in these terms and endorse Santorum — but Tuesday’s results suggest that Santorum’s political vision has resonance in the evangelical grass roots.

Natural law is a noble tradition that has shaped Western jurisprudence, but in the hands of conservative activists like Santorum it has become a dangerous cult of first principles. Santorum’s positions are perfectly logical if you accept his founding presuppositions — but, in his view, those presuppositions are not open to question. The genius of this emphasis on foundational assumptions is that if you can dismiss your opponent’s first principles, if you can accuse him of denying humanity’s “natural purpose,” you can claim to win the debate without ever considering the content of his argument.

This tactic destroys the possibility for real political dialogue, since one need only engage with those who share one’s own presuppositions. Despite Santorum’s calm debating style, his preference for home-schooling his children and rants against modern higher education suggest he has little genuine interest in open argument and free inquiry. Thomas Aquinas would not approve of such separatism: the theologian honed his most important ideas while in the thick of 13th-century heterodoxies, debating radical followers of Aristotle at the University of Paris.

The pundits are right about one thing: Santorum is the rock-ribbed anti-Romney candidate, the antidote to the bogeyman of “flip-flopping” and moderation. A half-century ago, evangelical voters worried that a Catholic president would take orders from the pope. Now they are worried instead about Romney reporting to a sinister Mormon cabal in Salt Lake City, while Santorum’s Catholicism has made him the candidate of universal “moral truth” and “divine reason:” the philosopher-king who can reclaim American liberty in the name of moral law, and package the Christian Right’s agenda in a respectable guise.

Molly Worthen teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.


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Tony Locke

Live in Gwinnett, GA next to Lake Lanier Islands. Married with four children. Pastored three churches over 18 years. Spent time serving as an Army Chaplain. Traveled in ministry to over 34 countries. B.A., M.A., M.Div., M.A.T.S., D.Min. BCC with NSC. Covering Georgia and upstate South Carolina

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