Rick Santorum set off a media firestorm when he referred to President Obama's political agenda as deriving from "a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible." Many took him to task for framing the question as a theological issue. Others have argued forcefully that Santorum's view is simply wrong: the President's theological understanding is correct.

It is worth addressing both points. Santorum could probably have avoided invoking "theology" in a political context; indeed, calling Obama's views a "phony theology" was not just combative, it was fatally imprecise. It was quickly misunderstood by commentators who rebuked Santorum for "making his campaign about religious orthodoxy," as if the candidate had critiqued Obama on an exegesis of the gospels.

When Santorum answered questions later about his "phony theology" comment, it was clear that he was not taking the President to task over a theological interpretation of the Bible. Santorum was analogizing Obama's worldview—the set of views that governs his policies on energy and the economy—with a "theology." Such provocative analogies aren't particularly useful in campaign politics. Perhaps there are elements of a "theology" in the views of the political left, but in the context of electoral politics, there's nothing actionable about that kind of assertion. Politicians do better to stick to policy.

That said, some of Santorum's critics have argued that the President's worldview is a theologically justifiable interpretation of the scriptures. While we should avoid attributing any of their individual arguments to President Obama, there are Christians who agree with his policies on energy and the economy, and who believe that principles from the Bible justify those policies.

Brian McLaren made one such case in his aptly named "Naked Theology" column at Patheos last week. Citing Cal De Witt, he argued from Genesis 2:15 that men and women are supposed to take care of and conserve the earth. And I don't think anyone disagrees with that proposition. Measures prescribed in the Law of Moses, such as leaving the fields fallow on a periodic basis and caring compassionately for farm animals, make it clear that God wants us to be—in the time-honored expression—good stewards of the earth.

The questions that arise from that are twofold: first, what makes us good stewards of the earth; and second, where does the coercion of the state come in?

These are clearly "disputable matters," as Paul formulated the idea in Romans 14:1-12. And we tend to approach them loaded down with buried premises. One of the most important differences between the sides is how we propose to measure good stewardship. As Santorum implied in his "phony theology" passage, one side in the debate looks at how our policies affect people, in terms of their access to resources and opportunity:

Obama's policies are "not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology."