"Phony Theology" vs. Bad Theology

One of the only things I like about Rick Santorum is that he’s a plucky guy. An almost accidental contender, his willingness to bring issues that others would leave well alone to the forefront of debate testifies to a spirited character that is faintly admirable, even if it isn’t exactly heroic. Lolloping merrily along the campaign trail, he’s almost playing Robin to Mitt Romney’s Batman. He’s even got his own signature costume, even if it is only a sweater vest.

On Sunday, Santorum provided us with a brilliant example of his pluck in a blistering Robin-like attack on Barack Obama in Columbus, Ohio. A committed Catholic and devoted member of Opus Dei, he used his speech to cast himself as the prophet of the evangelical right. Telling Tea Party Activists and evangelical supporters that the President’s policy platform is “not about you”, he went on to claim that “It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.” It went down a storm. As the applause rang around the hall, you could almost see the word “POW!” appear between Santorum and a spectral image of Obama.

In terms of political pluck, the speech ranks high. Although many pundits seized on it as an overt critique of Obama’s Christianity, it was actually a bold assertion of Santorum’s views of the relationship between politics and religion. Long committed to basing government on clear Christian principles, Santorum’s was clearly setting out his belief that “a theology based on the Bible” should oblige a President to prioritise jobs and the quality of life. What’s more, the speech claimed that only a Santorum presidency would be true to the Bible. “POW!” again.

The only problem with Santorum’s pluckiness is that it isn’t matched by any semblance of intellectual coherence. Of course, this isn’t to say that his position doesn’t have a respectable place in American political discourse. Indeed, quite the reverse. Despite their emphasis on the separation of Church and state, the founding fathers were committed Christians, and cast their pursuit of peace, democracy, and prosperity in terms taken from Scripture. Similarly, Manifest Destiny effectively ensured that a Christian understanding of providence would thenceforth remain an integral part of the American dream.

But if his brand of political theology has an established place in American history, the plucky Santorum’s own beliefs are strangely incoherent. Although he might not have realised it, Santorum’s speech actually conflicts with the Catholic teachings to which he is so devoted. It is not that Catholic theology is necessarily opposed to people enjoying a good standard of living or low unemployment, or that it looks askance at politicians motivated by a genuine piety, but rather than the Church has not always supported such a close relationship between politics and religion, and does not view material wellbeing as the primary goal of government.

For St. Augustine, it was far from clear that the governing authority in any state should necessarily seek to implement Christian precepts. His reasoning is subtle. His investigation of politics begins with an appreciation of the character of human society. Since those predestined to salvation and those doomed to eternal damnation were invisibly mixed together in any society, it was necessarily impossible to believe that any consensus could ever be found about matters of right and justice. But if this was so, what should be the objective of human governance? Since no-one would ever agree about what was ‘right’ or absolutely ‘just’, Augustine believed that a governing authority should merely aim to ensure that all people could leave together in peace, to restrain the worst effects of crime, and to create the conditions for people to meet their basic needs. This situation could then be enjoyed for its own sake by the sinful, and used for the sake of salvation by the righteous. Although it would be nice if the governing authority was Christian, Augustine did not believe either that this was a necessity, or that governance should be aggressively religious.

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But while he separated government from religion, Augustine was rather vague on the matter of material wellbeing, and it was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church finally settled its approach to this question. Its decision was, however, closely informed by elements of Augustine’s thought. From Augustine’s perspective, it was evident that spiritual goods were infinitely superior to material goods, and that to idolise wealth was to be abhorred. As a consequence, while the Church counselled governments that prosperity was important, poverty was to be overcome, and unemployment threatened the dignity of the human person, it consciously limited the significance accorded to the goal of economic growth.

In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Church affirmed that economic activity is meant to provide for human needs, but noted that the goal of economic life was not designed solely for the sake of increasing production or profit. Rather, the object of economic life was to serve people and the community as a whole. In this, however, the dignity and wholeness of the human person was to be respected above all.

Thus, from a Catholic perspective, it is clear that increasing the tax burden to allow wider access to healthcare is to be preferred to the unrestrained pursuit of economic growth in a society where medical services are available to fewer people. Similarly, an economic policy designed to ensure a fair distribution of wealth is better than one which encourages the pursuit of profit in the name of the Smithian “invisible hand”. To put it more bluntly, Santorum’s suggestion that “a theology based on the Bible” points towards a Christian government oriented towards wealth creation is just not very Catholic. Indeed, if his comments have any parallel in Christian thought, they perhaps have most in common not with Catholicism, but with Calvinist theology.

Ironically, Santorum has ended up presenting himself both as a Catholic and as a very un-Catholic political economist. Insofar as his political theology is concerned, he is quite simply intellectually incoherent. Given that he has accused President Obama of propounding a “phony theology” (which is, incidentally, rather more Catholic than his own), this smacks of a supreme lack of self-awareness. For this reason, it’s perhaps no surprise that Batman-like Mormon Mitt Romney is still more popular amongst Catholics (43%) than decidedly Robin-esque Santorum himself (31%).

Santorum’s comments in Columbus may have revealed what a plucky little fellow he is, but they have also shown why he is still playing Robin to Romney’s Batman amongst his own social constituency, and why “phony theology” is still infinitely better than plain bad theology.

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