Advice to Santorum: Remember the Catacombs!

It’s a shame nobody’s given Cardinal George credit for rhetorical restraint. When he warned of the gay rights movement evolving “into something like the Ku Klux Klan, protesting in the streets against Catholicism,” he might have been guilty of alarmism, but he was also evoking the Klan at its most endearing. It’s done worse — much worse. Given that one of the LGTB advocacy groups planning to protest the cathedral calls itself the Rainbow Sash Movement, George might more accurately have compared members to Ulster Protestants. (Will jukeboxes in brass-rail bars one day carry a song titled “The Sash My Two Fathers Wore”?) But since that could have upset the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, it’s just as well he didn’t.

In the future, statements like the cardinal’s are going to fly in batches. Spokespeople, official and unofficial, have adopted the position that the Church is due for a new wave of persecution. This past fall, Russell Shaw predicted that “the coercive power of the State” will be “brought to bear on church-related institutions to act against conscience or go out of business.” Arcbishop Chaput of Philadelphia uses similar language in condemning an America that’s betrayed the ideals of its Puritan founders and tolerates a government that “pressures religious entities out of the public square,” “overrides the will of voters,” and “discourages certain forms of religious teaching as ‘hate speech.’”

At times, during the the various clerical sex-abuse scandals, cries of “anti-Catholicism” amounted, if not to cries of “wolf,” then certainly to cries of “fire” in a crowded theater where someone is sneaking a cigarette. They’ve also tended to come much more often from the political Right — that is, from people who’ve hated the New York Times on general principle for years. But now, thanks to deadly attacks on Christian churches in Cairo and Nigeria, an appreciation of harsh new realities for all Christians — not just Catholics — is starting to become universal, at least among people of faith.

In National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, Jr. writes explicitly of a “global war on Christians.” Citing studies from the Global Institute on Human Rights, Allen declares Christians “by far the most persecuted religious group on the planet.” According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation, he says, “200 million Christians now suffer discrimination, harassment and outright violence.”

This would be perfect time for Santorum to deal out a good, old-fashioned, hair-raising slippery-slope argument. Tombstones once warned Hodie mihi, cras tibi — “Today for me; tomorrow, for you.” The very sound of “Today for them, tomrrow for us” would get GOP values voters thinking in terms of tanks in the streets and gulags in the Sierras — if they’re not already. The question is whether the Catholic Santorum would be able to fold himself more easily into that “us” than the Mormon Romney.

My sense is, he would. His positions on abortion and same-sex marriage are too consistently anti to stand any picking apart. Whatever Pope Benedict had to say about the global redistribution of wealth in last December’s Peace Message, Santorum himself has come down hard on the side of the deserving rich. “I’m for income inequality,” he told the Des Moines Register. “I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it.”

John Gerhring observes that Santorum’s views fall to the right of the Vatican’s and the bishops’ on immigration, public employees’ unions and man-made global warming. These might well help him achieve the status among people like Pastor Hagee that Joe Louis achieved among white American boxing fans: that of credit to his race.

The real question is whether catacombs rhetoric would boost Santorum’s standing among the 54% of Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008. It might just. Hispanics make up 31% of U.S. Catholics. Though a majority are Democrats, many have more in common with the 47% that voted for McCain than in the last election they have with the majority that didn’t. A 2009 Pew survey found that 57% of Hispanics opposed legal abortion — “a higher rate than any other ethnic group.” According to another survey taken the same year, 49% of Hispanics opposed same-sex marriage, whereas 45% came out in favor.

For GOP contenders, fishing for converts among Hispanics using family values as bait is nothing new. But government pressure on Catholic social service agencies is. Just this fall, the Department of Health and Human Services declined to renew a $4.5 million grant to the Bishops’ Conference Migration and Refugee Services. Following a lawsuit by the ACLU, HHS officials rewrote the departmental guidelines toward giving “a strong preference” to applicants who offered the “full range” of gynecological and obstetric services.

Of course, the services got provided — just by other people. Even after Migration and Refugee Services’ grant expired, the Bishops’ Conference still received $19 million for other projects. Details, details. In the Bishops’ Conference blog, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh complained of “a new unwritten reg…the ABC Rule, Anybody But Catholics.” That’s the kind of thing that gets people talking. If Santorum works that angle with the same gusto, he might just win enough converts to become the first Catholic president with no charisma.

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