Evangelicals & Catholics together

If Time magazine can name Rick Santorum, a lifelong Roman Catholic, as one of the top 25 evangelicals in America, Santorum is happy to extend the ecclesial mix and match to President Bush, whom he calls America’s first Catholic president.

Santorum’s remarks about Bush are not new, but are revisited in “The Believer,” an 8,200-word profile by Michael Sokolove that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Santorum first made the remarks to John Allen Jr., the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican correspondent, in January 2002. As Sokolove makes clear, with his comparison to Toni Morrison’s remark that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president, Santorum was speaking symbolically:

In 2002, in a little-noticed interview that took place in Rome, Santorum told National Catholic Reporter, a U.S.-based weekly, that he considered George W. Bush, a Methodist, to be “the first Catholic president of the United States.” (His remark was reminiscent of the novelist Toni Morrison’s saying that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president, although an obvious difference is that there actually has been a Catholic president.) Santorum explained his claim to me: “What I meant was if you look at the two major issues of the church, it’s sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage and the family — and third is care for the poor. And you have a president who is consistent with Catholic social teaching on all of these issues.”

And what about John F. Kennedy? Santorum says he believes that in a political sense, Kennedy shed his Catholicism. (Kennedy’s most famous statement on church and state was: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”) “I can understand and even defend him in some respects for doing so,” Santorum said. “There was still a very anti-Catholic bias, certainly among Southerners.” Other Catholic politicians, he continued, “have sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing.”

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, is far from Santorum on most social issues but close to him personally. A Catholic, she has attended the catechism classes he holds in the Capitol. She wasn’t familiar with his statement in National Catholic Reporter and let out a little chortle upon hearing it. “That is so vintage Rick,” she said. “One of the things I like best about him is he is completely authentic. I would draw the line differently than where he does. But he believes there should be more of an intertwining of government and religion, and he believes it passionately.”

As this blog has noted before, evangelical Richard Land once spoke of the greater solidarity he felt with Pope John Paul II than with some of his fellow Southern Baptists. In that light, there’s nothing terribly unusual in Santorum’s remarks, except his provocative insistence that Bush behaves more like an observant Catholic than some public officials who belong to the Catholic Church.

Sokolove’s tone suggests a certain admiration for — but clearly not agreement with — Santorum’s passion for prolife issues and faith-based assistance to the poor. He explores the irony that the Democratic Party, which barred Bob Casey from the speaker’s podium in 1992, now feels such enthusiasm for Bob Casey Jr., who shares his late father’s opposition to abortion. One difference already is clear in the prolife positions of the younger Casey and Santorum: Casey’s campaign manager has criticized Santorum as “the only member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo’s hospice.”

Sokolove further captures the cultural divide on issues of fetal life in describing how Santorum and his family handled the death of baby Gabriel Michael Santorum, who died in the womb:

The childbirth in 1996 was a source of terrible heartbreak — the couple were told by doctors early in the pregnancy that the baby Karen was carrying had a fatal defect and would survive only for a short time outside the womb. According to Karen Santorum’s book, “Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum,” she later developed a life-threatening intrauterine infection and a fever that reached nearly 105 degrees. She went into labor when she was 20 weeks pregnant. After resisting at first, she allowed doctors to give her the drug Pitocin to speed the birth. Gabriel lived just two hours.

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish — others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. “Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!” Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. “Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’”

Print Friendly

  • Stephen A.

    I really like Sen. Santorum on a couple of different levels, and was going to make some snide comments about the tone of the article (finding someone to “chortle” over poor Rick’s views, etc.

    However, if this last paragraph is true, this is probably the end of this man’s hope for the presidency. How strange.

    If poor Bob Graham was denied the VP slot with Gore and Kerry because of his “eccentric” habit of writing EVERYTHING he did each day in a diary, taking home a dead baby and cuddling it all night has got to be the strangest and, as the reporter points out correctly, ghoulish, stories I have ever heard, and voters will certainly hold this against him, I expect.

    Did he mention in the article that he has something like 10 kids? No need to ask whether he stands with the Pope on birth control, I guess (not that this is bad thing, if he can afford them all.)

  • http://rising-up.blogspot.com/ Joe Perez

    I don’t know that Santorum’s sleeping with a fetal corpse will hurt his chances with Catholics, but his comment about George W. Bush being the first Catholic president definitely should. I think it’s terribly insulting to the legacy of John Kennedy. This is Santorum playing “more Catholic than thou” which is most unappealing. As Jeremy Lott observed on this blog not too long ago, the Gulf War-supporting, death-penalty supporting senator is at least as much a “GOP hack” than Catholic.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Santorum is the last guy who should be playing more-Catholic-than-thou — based on this article, he doesn’t have a terribly strong grasp of his own tradition. Not even Benedict could sign off on that undergrad fluff about “moral absolutes,” a concept he shows no understanding of.

  • Dan Crawford

    Santorum may support “faith-based initiatives” (whatever they are) but when he had a chance to vote for a rational drug benefit program for seniors who could not afford the obscenely high cost of certain drugs, he voted to preserve corporate profits. His concern for the poor and disadvantaged in this society is non-existent. His Democratic opponent this year is not only pro-life and Catholic, but one whose views are consistently more in line with the social teaching of the most recent Popes and the American Catholic Bishops. As for George II being a “Catholic “president”, now there’s a scary thought.

  • tmatt


    I assume this is his starting point, or it was when I interviewed him.


  • http://www.chipsmith.blogspot.com Chip

    Santorum said that Bush is consistent with Catholic social teaching on care for the poor? Catholic teaching about concern for the poor calls for more than just rhetoric about being a “compassionate conservative” and faith-based initiatives. The Medicare Bill that Dan mentioned above, the bankruptcy bill, the tax cuts, the tort reform proposals, etc. are some of the examples of Bush favoring corporate and wealthy interests at the expense of the poor.

  • Jill

    “Bush behaves more like an observant Catholic than some public officials who belong to the Catholic Church.”

    I concur with this observation when it comes to those important ‘culture of life’ issues. And that’s the main reason I voted for him again last November.

    I can perfectly understand the behavior of the Santorums with their precious little one who died. It must’ve been comforting for them to have him in the hospital room that night and beneficial for the siblings at home to see their little brother before he was buried. After all, Gabriel was part of their family and they had loved him for four or five months.

    And since when is a baby who is born alive and then dies, a fetal corpse?

  • Tom Breen

    Wow, the Church’s “two main issues” are abortion and the sanctity of the family? I’m really going to have to bring this up with my priest, who’s always talking about “Sacraments” and “grace” and “salvation” and some “Jesus” character who apparently had some role in the early Church.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said Santorum was speaking symbolically: the empty symbolism of political gestures is all some people understand now. It doesn’t matter what Bush’s record is on pro-life issues (it’s actually not that great); what matters is what Bush says about pro-life issues. Who cares if you can walk the walk if you can talk the talk?

  • John Sheridan

    Bush is the “first Catholic president”? Was Santorum raised Catholic? It is hard for me to beleive that any Catholic could be so out of touch with American Catholic culture as to deliver such an insult to JFK.

    Whatever you think about JFK’s politics or his personal life–he was very clearly Catholic.

  • Steve H.

    Sen. Santorum is a man, and a politician, which is to say he is both imperfect and immersed in a sub-culture (Congress) which brings intense pressure to bear on the faithful to cut deals and compromise their principles.

    I have followed Santorum’s actions closer than most, and there is much I could carp about (a la some comments above), but at the end of the day it is just that–carping–as I am faced with the glaring fact that he and those like him have did much more than I to promote the common good in a culture where radical individualism, materialism, utilitarianism, etc. too often hold sway. To those who, like the old geezers on the Muppet Show, sit in the balcony and complain that things should be done differently, I say: run for office–I’ll vote for ya!

  • http://www.crashgroundzero.com Glenn A.

    Steve, I have to agree with your latter statements, though not particularly in Santorum’s case, but overall.

    Too often we live our lives playing the cultural game of tear someone down. But when it really comes down to brass tacks, does that person actually attempt to promote the same values that you have? To me, that is a defining issue in how I vote. Character counts, but as you said, we have to realize that these are all fallen men and women leading us, just as you and I are.

    That doesn’t mean we overlook everything, but it means that we operate within a worldview that considers that. Scratch anyone hard enough and you will find the sins underneath. What we seem more concerned with today is finding the sins, rather than the actual issues themselves.

  • metagirl

    I don’t know that Santorum’s sleeping with a fetal corpse will hurt his chances with Catholics, but his comment about George W. Bush being the first Catholic president definitely should. I think it’s terribly insulting to the legacy of John Kennedy. This is Santorum playing “more Catholic than thou” which is most unappealing. As Jeremy Lott observed on this blog not too long ago, the Gulf War-supporting, death-penalty supporting senator is at least as much a “GOP hack” than Catholic.

    Posted by Joe Perez at 2:59 pm on May 23, 2005

    Thank you for posting this, Joe, as it saved me the time. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and GWB is no Roman Catholic. I’m not even sure he’s Christian, as most of us attend Church at least on a regular basis, and he practices his faith with himself.

  • Fred

    What Sokolove opportunistically wants to characterize as “discomforting, strange, and goulish”, a more compassionate person may see as tragic and grief stricken. Rather than describing a cultural divide perhaps he is trying to create one to isolate the very dangerously electible Mr. Santorum from a potential voter base.

  • NateB

    My own offhand index for judging how Catholic a politician is, is to ask how spectacularly their careers have utterly failed. Buchanan, for instance, is lately all but heckled off stages by his supposed conservative constituents.

    I have sympathy for the position that politicians are fallible men. That said, I make a distinction between a failure to enact church teachings in practical ways and a flat out ignorance or disregard for what church teaching is. In Tancredo’s case, I was dissappointed that such a prominent Catholic was so happy to disregard the church’s just war doctrine and (now) two popes for the sake of supporting his party.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    As to the picture, is Santorum affecting a pious pose of true faith or a pleading pose for the votes of good Catholics?

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    For more analysis of the picture, here is a website that specializes in such:


  • Pingback: Strangely Warmed