Phony outrage over “phony theology”?

It’s been an interesting, if tiring, few weeks in media criticism and the culture wars. We saw how national media figures immediately jumped to help Planned Parenthood’s campaign against the Komen Foundation and how they have been working hard to frame objections to a federal mandate (that critics say seriously harms religious liberty) as a war on women. So when news broke this weekend about some supposedly alarming things that Rick Santorum said, I wasn’t sure I could handle another round.

I loathe politics and would really like a break from it, particularly on Ash Wednesday. But that’s not to be, I guess. So let’s look at how well the media have been reporting just one thing said by Rick Santorum. Let’s first look at this piece in the Washington Post by Felicia Sonmez, headlined “Five reasons why Santorum’s campaign-trail ‘misstatements’ may help him“:

1. Reporters aren’t voters.

When it comes to Santorum’s recent controversial remarks, Republican primary voters – at least, those showing up to the candidate’s recent events – seem to have had a completely different reaction than the news media has.

I just want to thank her for the honesty of showing that members of the news media have a reaction to Santorum and that it’s not favorable. In fact, it would probably best be described as “angered” or “appalled” something of that nature. Sonmez highlights some “theology” statements that Santorum made and remarks that “members of the press may still be scratching their heads over the remarks.” What were they? Well, what the media describe them as bears almost no resemblance to what they actually were, which might explain the head-scratching.

You can watch the first couple minutes of the video above to see for yourself what Santorum was talking about. He was quite clearly criticizing Obama on his drilling policies. Here’s the transcript of the relevant portion:

SANTORUM: The price of fuel right now, they’re talking maybe by the summer we’re looking at $5 a gallon. Why? Why? Because this president systematically is doing everything he can to raise the price of energy in this country. He’s shutting down all sorts of opportunities for us to drill for oil. He’s now trying to infuse not science when it comes to the environment, not environmental science when it comes to drilling wells for oil and gas in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and other places that use hydraulic fracking.

He’s trying to do again what he tried to do with global warming. Instead of using climate science or global science he uses political science. And political science in this case is suggesting that a technology that has been successfully used to drill hundreds of thousands of wells in this country, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells, all of a sudden now that’s a dangerous technology. Why? Because it could lead to lower energy prices. That’s the dangerousness of this technology. It doesn’t fit his pattern of trying to drive down consumption, driving to drive up your cost of transportation to accomplish his political science goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

This is what the president’s agenda is. It’s not about you. It’s 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. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

I couldn’t hear any head scratching at the end, but there was lots of cheering. The crowd seemed to get what Santorum was saying. Now, if you’ve ever heard anyone criticize some environmentalists, you’ve probably heard that criticism allege that extreme environmentalism seems like a religion or a false belief system. (If you really want your mind blown, check out this excellent book that takes on both environmentalists and economists, titled “The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.”)

Sometimes people talk about theology in a political sense and no one gets mad. You can see some examples of President Clinton talking about politicians’ theology here. Or you can go all the way back to a December 13 press briefing, when President Obama’s press secretary said: “Now, what we have seen from Republicans in Congress is the promulgation of this idea that passing a tax cut for middle-class Americans is somehow a favor they would be doing for the President of the United States. Most of my adult life, the Republican theology has been tax cuts for everyone are the highest priority. ”

So while crowds who go to political rallies understood what Santorum was saying, and while the media don’t react in a crazy fashion when certain people use the term theology, in this case, that didn’t happen. They utterly flipped out. On Face the Nation, CBS’s Bob Schieffer said:

BOB SCHIEFFER: The Associated Press led its story of your appearance in Columbus, Ohio, by saying, quote, “Rick Santorum questioned Barack Obama’s Christian values.” That was after you lashed out at the President’s proposal on energy of all things when you said this.

RICK SANTORUM (Republican Presidential Candidate/Former Pennsylvania Senator): It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs.

MAN: Right.

RICK SANTORUM: It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

(Crowd applauding)

BOB SCHIEFFER: So, Senator, I’ve got to ask you. What– what in the world were you talking about, Sir?

Note the “of all things” and “what in the world were you talking about, Sir,” drama. Come on.

Others took similar approaches. Here’s the Detroit Free Press and here’s how the Los Angeles Times led its piece on the issue:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denied Sunday that he had questioned President Obama’s Christian faith, but said the president held an environmental belief “that elevates the Earth above man.”

Santorum was quoted Saturday as telling an audience in Ohio that although he accepted the president’s Christianity, he believed Obama adhered to “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

There’s really no defense for taking these remarks out of context to make them look like he was going after President Obama’s religion. Well, I say there’s no defense, but you can watch Howie Kurtz defend it here. Or read Howie Kurtz defending it here.

It’s gotten to the point that when a reporter or pundit says that Santorum said something, I don’t even react until I find the actual thing he said and read it or watch it myself. It’s not like Santorum doesn’t give people plenty of religion and values stuff to discuss. There’s no need to make up additional instances of it. And there’s not really a need to dig back into the past to find religious comments he made as a private citizen and presenting them as if they were uttered yesterday on the campaign trail.

I get that many in the media loathe and despire Santorum with a passion they haven’t felt in a few years. Some have told me this themselves. But their job isn’t to get people to love or hate Santorum but, simply, to report on what he has actually said, in context, and to tell us how voters respond to it. They don’t need to manufacture a story and they would do well to spend more time listening to how his message goes over with voters than telling everyone what they should think about it.

A bad example of this might be Charles Babington’s piece for the Associated Press or this piece by Politico. Better examples come from Nate Silver of the New York Times and this campaign trail piece from the Wall Street Journal. On that note, you may also be interested in this conservative column arguing that the media ignore Democratic statements about religion because of a double standard.

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  • Ray Ingles

    There does seem to be a difference in your examples of how the term ‘theology’ was used, though.

    For instance, I don’t know of too many people who actually think the Republican Party is a religion. So it would seem that “President Obama’s press secretary” was using the term ‘theology’ there in an ironic sense.

    Whereas Santorum really does seem to be using the term in a more religious sense, specifically contrasting the “phony theology” with “a theology based on the Bible”. I’m not really seeing the ironic usage there. Is there coverage that makes that ironic or figurative usage more explicit?

  • Ted Olsen

    Not sure I believe this argument, but let me float it anyway: It’s partly about conforming to the established narrative, and partly about the reporter’s job to distinguish between belief and rhetoric.

    Reporters and assignment editors give more attention to religious comments by Santorum and other conservative Republicans because the established narrative is that they “really believe that stuff.” Democrats get a pass because the reporters and editors believe that Democrats, by and large, don’t believe it.

    So Maxine Waters’s “demons” comment doesn’t get a lot of mainstream press attention because the assumption is that she doesn’t actually believe in demons. For the most part, people treated it as a rhetorical device. Had Santorum used the term, we’d be seeing a lot of articles about “spiritual warfare,” deliverance ministries, etc.

    The problem, of course, is that who believes what doesn’t break down perfectly along partisan lines. And even people who “really believe that stuff” sometimes use idioms that don’t directly connect to the theological referent.

    But as an editor/reporter, I’m not as negative as you are on this. My ears do perk up more when Santorum says “theology” than when Jay Carney says it, partly because I’ve heard Santorum use that word to discuss actual theology, while Carney’s sentence did suggest he was trying out a more forceful word than “ideology.”

    A related hypothetical: Two public figures use the phrase “Go to hell.” Both, in context, were using it idiomatically. But one of the two figures has talked about the reality of hell. I’d think that that potentially makes the comment newsworthy.

    All that said, yes, it’s important to make sure you discuss the quote accurately, in context, etc. And yes, I’ve seen a lot of pieces that inaccurately reported that Santorum denied Obama is a Christian. But if we’re going to talk about putting the quote in context, then part of the context is that Santorum spent the four years before his campaign talking about “fighting a war against a radical theology.” He could have used the word “ideology” in Columbus. Didn’t. I’m fine with that being news.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I hope you get a chance to write about the attacks on Rick Santorum for saying that Satan opposes the U.S.

    It seems to me that “Satan opposes the U.S.” is merely the flip-side of what Santorum, Romney and Gingrich have been suggesting for years — that God favors the United States.

    It seems like a corollary to the doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” If America is the divinely chosen agent of God and goodness since 1492 or 1620 or 1776, then it follows that the enemies of God (Demons, Devils, Evil Empires and whatnot) will do all they can to undermine God’s Anointed.

    I’m not arguing for or against the idea that God favors (or that Satan disfavors) America. But both ideas seem equally plausible (or implausible). They’re like matching book-ends. They kind of rise or fall together.

  • Mollie


    Excellent points. The WSJ column linked above says much the same as you wrote — we treat these things differently because we don’t believe it when certain people use religious language and we do believe it when others do. I’m not quite sure I buy that argument, but I don’t have a better one to argue for.

    As for this particular case, I think that the Wall Street Journal piece did what you’re arguing for — putting Santorum’s various rhetorical devices in context of his ideology as well as a conscious campaign strategy. It brings up the theology comment but doesn’t oversell what he was saying and, in fact, leads with other comments.

    My point on this is pretty narrow — don’t claim that Santorum was talking about Obama’s church membership when he was clearly critiquing his drilling policy.

    But, obviously, there are many examples Santorum provides for talking about the spiritual dimension of his campaign. It just when reporters are misrepresenting one instance, it makes it hard to trust them in general coverage of the topic.

  • Mollie


    What I thought of was Rev. Wright’s “G-d D–n America!” line. But yes, I imagine we will have to look at that coverage, too.

  • Jerry

    I loathe politics and would really like a break from it

    Unfortunately, there’s no 12 step program for recovering media commentators.

    This is what the president’s agenda is. It’s not about you. It’s 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. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

    The entire paragraph says that the President’s agenda is not based on what Santorum claims is a Biblical theology but a phony theology. That’s just what he said.

    Now maybe the media should have challenged Santorum on conflating politics with religion because that’s another way of looking at what he said. What he said can be taken to mean that he wants to have a “Biblical theology” govern the actions of the President. There’s a word for that: theocracy.

  • Mollie


    All you’ve done is the same thing the Santorum opponents and the media have done — clip the quote out of its original context to make it look like Santorum was saying something about Obama’s Christianity.

    That’s exactly what the post is critiquing. Is there a journalistic — as opposed to political — argument for clipping the words to make them sound like, as you put it, “theocracy” instead of a critique of Obama’s drilling policy?

  • Bain Wellington

    Not too off-topic, I hope, but picking up on Ted Olsen’s point about believer/non-believer and how theological terms sound different depending on whose mouth they issue from: in England, one of the prime movers of the new atheism is Richard Dawkins, a zoologist, former Oxford professor, and committed darwinian. Last week he engaged in an on-air joust with Giles Fraser (an Anglican priest who hit the headlines over moves – still ongoing – to dislodge “Occupy” protesters from their tent camp in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London).

    The highlight (over-played in Britain’s Daily Mail and elsewhere as a humiliation for Dawkins and a triumph for Fraser) came with Dawkins’ ejaculation “Oh God!” when struggling to recall the exact and full title of Darwin’s most famous work. Look here for a Jewish take on what happened.

    It rated a column or two on the religion beat over at huffingtonpost.

  • R9

    I wonder why Santorum chooses to describe views he dislikes as theology…and why do policies about the environment and fuel policy have to be based on the bible anyway?

    So no I don’t think Santorum thinks Obama is secretly a neo-pagan or something but there seems to be some sort of implication of “not doing what a proper christian would”.

    Another question for him, are all theologies not bible-based, phony?

  • Mollie


    Did you wonder the same when Obama’s press secretary described views he disliked as theology? Did reporters revisit it when Obama said he had a Bible-based theology of taxes?

  • R9

    I’d go with what Ray said, on that point.

  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie –

    Did reporters revisit it when Obama said he had a Bible-based theology of taxes?

    Um, when was that? I can’t seem to find it among the examples you listed above…

  • Mollie


    He said it during this year’s prayer breakfast and you’re right, it didn’t get anything like the coverage Santorum is enduring right now. Just another great example of the media disparity.

  • R9

    For what it’s worth I would be quite happy to see Obama questioned on his tax theology. And whether or not he can make a case for his policies without needing theology or his god. (which I would hope for from any leader in a secular state).

  • Mike Hickerson

    I’m still trying to figure out who thinks that Sen. Santorum and the President have the same theology.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I hope you already know, but just in case not, there are people for whom our relationship with the environment is religion. I am one of them.

    On the flip side, it is pretty fair to call economics a religion for some people. The ones I’m thinking of believe that the free market, if just unfettered and allowed to do its thing, will fix everything eventually (including affronts to the environment). That’s putting the Invisible Hand in a position usually reserved for the Almighty.

  • Mollie


    I went and heard the author of that book in question speak and he said that when he addressed crowds — of either environmental or economics activists — and would be told about the religious aspects of their ideological opponents’ work, they’d agree enthusiastically. And then when he pointed out the same for them, they would deny it fervently.

    Speaking as a free market enthusiast, I had to admit that stung a little bit!

    There are religious dimensions to many things and it’s just one reason why a secularist approach that pretends to be without any particular bias is limiting. It’s how the media approach things, and I’m fine with that of course, but I don’t know if they realize that it’s just as much a worldview as the most religion-infused speech a President Obama or Sen. Santorum ever imagined delivering …

  • Ray Ingles

    Mike –

    I’m still trying to figure out who thinks that Sen. Santorum and the President have the same theology.

    From the perspective of, say, a non-monotheist, the differences might not seem quite so pronounced. :)

  • Martha

    I have to agree with Dave on that one; as a non-American, interacting online with some Americans (and not in an adversarial manner) is an eye-opener as they do seem to treat free-market capitalism with the same seriousness and sense of its value that I would reserve for religion.

    The best example of that I can think of is when a blogger made a comment in a post about a “Faustian bargain” and a commenter immediately piped up – with no sense of irony that I could discern – that this was a bad metaphor as dealing with the Devil was not a genuine commercial transaction, unlike proper business practice, so please to use some other term to express disapproval of the actions in question.

    Apparently comparing the Devil to either a seller (of the benefits promised for exchange of a soul) or buyer (of souls) is an offence against the Free Market God of the Invisible Hand?

  • Bill

    I’m paraphrasing this from memory, a most leaky and unseaworthy vessel, so I beg for mercy if I’m a bit off.

    Paul Tillich defined religion as being in the grasp of an ultimate concern, which renders all other concerns preliminary, and which contains within it the reason for our existence. If so, then environmentalism, capitalism, communism, fascism, nazism and even secularism could become religions. And from each would flow a unique theology. If the state or the environment or the Dow is the ultimate good, the ultimate purpose and the ultimate power, the theology which emanates is definitely not Biblical.

    I agree that Democrats get away with religious references because reporters don’t believe they believe it. This is a sorry state of affairs as it trivializes someone’s sincere faith. And it justifies lying – putting on a false religious face to wow the wowsers.

  • Cathy G.

    Environmentalism isn’t my religion, but “creation care” is a huge part of it – so I was really happy to see this story, quoting some evangelicals:

  • Karen

    I know of no actual Biblically-based Christian theology of anti-environmentalism, but I do know of stewardship of God’s gifts and creation care.

    Santorum is pretty well outside of what I read in Christian scriptures- there is definitely a theology of economics, of taxation, and of care for the poor so the Obama administration’s use of “theology” actually does refer to a Biblical source.

    As Mike Lux says:

    There are “a lot of verses, 258 by my count, where Rick Santorum’s savior and George W. Bush’s favorite philosopher sounds like a tried and true, solid to the core, far-out, lefty liberal. And all those where Jesus sounds like a conservative? I couldn’t find a single one.”

  • Bain Wellington

    Update on my comment @8

    In a public and moderated discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Oxford yesterday, Dawkins said (according to a report by The Daily Telegraph) that he cannot be sure God does not exist (on a scale where 7 is certainty, he admits to 6.9).

    Another report from the same source quotes Dawkins as saying:-

    I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low

    So maybe his appeal to the Diety (when scrambling to remember the long title of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species) was the fruit of his residual acceptance of the probability (not “possibility”, note) of God’s existence, and not just a meaningless verbal tick?

  • Bain Wellington

    Deity . . just a typo! Nothing snarky.

  • Mike O.

    Bain, I’m not sure where you’re going with your line of posts. First off, people say interjections all the time when mad or surprised that don’t necessarily match with what they think. If someone cuts me off on the parkway I might unfortunately utter a phrase that starts with “son of a”. I’m not stating something I truly believe about the mother of the person who can’t operate a turn signal. I’m uttering something without thinking about it. Back in the day when people (assumedly other than Perry White) would shout “great Ceasar’s ghost” I sincerely doubt they believed in Ceasar’s ghost or that it was involved in whatever they saw. As I said, it’s just an interjection.

    Plus are you somehow trying to imply that Dawkins really and secretly believes in God? You can think he’s an idiot, that he’s awful, that his arguments are pitiful; but what kind of point are you trying to make by stitching together some threadbare pseudologic that Dawkins is some kind of undercover theist?

  • Bain Wellington

    Hello Mike O. It’s not exactly a “line of posts”, is it – just one post with a follow-up and a typo, and (as I explained when making it) the original comment took wing from what Ted Olsen wrote @2:-

    Maxine Waters’s “demons” comment doesn’t get a lot of mainstream press attention because the assumption is that she doesn’t actually believe in demons. For the most part, people treated it as a rhetorical device. Had Santorum used the term, we’d be seeing a lot of articles about “spiritual warfare,” deliverance ministries, etc.

    So yes, I know there are such things as verbal ticks and whatnot. With Dawkins, we all know he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, but his “oh God!” ejaculation got a fair bit of media attention in the UK, so I guess it was a contemporary counter-instance of the point Ted was making. In my original post I wasn’t making any particular point about Dawkins or his beliefs. It was a journalism point.

    My follow-up was just that – something happened a day or two ago which bore very precisely on my original comment. Dawkins concedes there is at least some level of “probability” (his word) that God exists. The moderator of the discussion, Sir Anthony Kenny, interjected that that must mean Dawkins is an agnostic rather than an atheist and Dawkins (who, as I said, is one of the more prominent “new atheists”) seems to have accepted the logic of that.

    It’s all in the public arena – you can’t pin it on me that I am propagating the view that Dawkins is “really or secretly” a theist or that he is “some kind of undercover theist”. I said nothing remotely justifying such a characterisation. What I presented is what we have from his own mouth. Make of it what you will, and “stitching” it sure is; but “threadbare pseudologic it ain’t. My final remark was posed as a rhetorical question, by the way.

  • Mike O.

    Hi Bain, you’re right that what is essentially two posts doesn’t qualify as a “line of posts”.

    Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you’ll find that a majority of atheists agree with Dawkins in that way since they believe the non-existence of a god can’t be disproven.

    I think you’re putting much stock in the word choice of “probability”. It doesn’t automatically mean “probably”, it’s just a mathematical term. There is a probability I can roll all ones on 10 dice (1 divided by 6^10) and a probability I’ll become a jetsetting billionaire playboy (0). Just because he doesn’t have a blind faith (blind non-faith?) in a lack of gods doesn’t change his status as a non-believer.

    This leads back to Ted Olsen’s journalism post. His point was basing the mainstream press’s attention to a person’s comment and determining how seriously it should be taken. Rick Santorum literally believes in Satan, and that he is constantly working to befoul the souls of every living person. So when he makes a remark about Satan, the press should take it on its face. Richard Dawkins has a senior moment and shouts “Oh God!”. It’s just not the same. By the same reasoning that he can’t rule out gods he also can’t rule out leprechauns. If he were to use the phrase “luck of the Irish” should the press naturally assume he’s being literal in that case?

    You said that your last statement was rhetorical, which I agree with. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a thrust behind it. Why throw it out there if you don’t think that there is a possibility that it’s “not just a meaningless verbal tick”? If you’re not trying to suggest that there is a crack in his non-belief (which it seems like based on your other statements) are you suggesting that the media can never take anyone’s statement as a verbal tic?