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"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.