Someone’s confused about Santorum

An editor, whose religion I don’t know, sent this Associated Press story along with the note, “Maybe I’m too sensitive to these things, but this strikes me as kind of a vile headline if you think about it–not that some people mistake him for a Protestant, but the implication is that they wouldn’t support him if they knew he was Catholic.”

What’s the headline?

Santorum benefits from mistaken religious identity

Here’s the lede:

Rick Santorum’s political good fortune in the Republican presidential primaries has come about in large part because of his appeal to evangelicals. A Roman Catholic, he is a beneficiary of more than two decades of cooperation between conservative Protestants and Catholics who set aside theological differences for the common cause of the culture war.

Doctrine – and anti-Catholic bias – once split Protestants and Catholics so bitterly that many evangelical leaders worked to defeat John F. Kennedy because of his religion. When Kennedy sought to confront suspicion about his Catholicism, he made his now-famous faith speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of evangelical Protestants in Texas. Five decades later, when some prominent evangelical leaders gathered at a Texas ranch to discuss backing a 2012 GOP candidate, Santorum was their choice.

The headline and the lede are just weird, aren’t they? First off, the people who seem particularly confused about Rick Santorum’s religion are the media, right? In one breath, they call him an evangelical, in another, they deride him for (for instance) wearing his Catholic faith on his sleeve.

In August Bill Keller, then executive editor of the New York Times, was telling us that Rick Santorum is part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity.” Only a few months later, he tweets:

@nytkeller A friend poses this GOP debate question: Wasn’t yesterday Ash Wednesday? Aren’t Santorum and Gingrich devout Catholics?

When a couple of reporters pointed out that it’s not a holy day of obligation for Catholics and that you’re not obliged to wear your ashes all day, he responded:

@nytkeller No, it’s not an obligation. But these guys wear their faith on their sleeves. Why not on their foreheads?

Which is it, Bill? Fervid subset of evangelical Christianity or a Catholic who wears his faith on his sleeve? By the way, it’s just been a banner week in religious bigotry at the New York Times. There was the Charles Blow nonsense (no, not about sex or his eliminationist rhetoric about conservatives but, rather, his mockery of Mormon garments. He did apologize for the mockery.). And then there’s this Dick Cavett nonsense that begins with some bigoted discussions of Catholic teaching and Rick Santorum before speaking utter nonsense about homeschooling, trotting out just about every ill-informed prejudice out there.

OK, but back to the point of this Associated Press piece. He “benefits” from “mistaken” religious identity. What’s the proof? Well, there is none. So I guess that settles that. Actually, the proof is just a mention of a Christian Post article headlined “Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical.” It is more like a blog post and I kid you not that three of the five folks “you” thought were evangelical are Justice Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich and Bobby Jindal. I don’t even think that Bill Keller thought any of these folks was evangelical. The justification for thinking Santorum was evangelical? A link to that Time story saying he was.

The headline oversells a piece that should have been about how Santorum appeals to evangelicals. But the story struggles, too. I’m not even sure I think the “good fortune” language is right. Fortune is “chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs.” Not even a majority of evangelicals are behind Santorum (it still being a four-way race) but is whatever large portion of them he holds due to chance or luck? That Roman Catholics and Protestants have become cobelligerents on some of the major issues of the day may have as much to say about those external forces as it does about them. Perhaps much more, in fact.

The piece could also have benefited from some additional facts and figures. Even just this part:

The high regard extends to Santorum’s personal life. His seven children have been home-schooled, a practice much more common among conservative American Protestants than Catholics, who have a network of parochial schools built over centuries.

I know many home schoolers and while many of them could be described as Protestant (they’re Lutheran), that doesn’t mean they’re evangelical — sort of the point of the story. I also know many Catholic home schoolers, atheist home schoolers, plain old hippie home schoolers, etc. Is there data on the practice of homeschooling relative to a religious population? I’m sure there is, but maybe some specifics would help us see how disparate the practice is. Heck, I’d love to know how many Catholics send their kids to parochial schools.

We’re told that Santorum frequently questions the authenticity of other Christians but the first substantiation for it is a reference to when Santorum criticized Obama’s drilling policy. If he does it so frequently, at the very least we could have an instance that’s not such a great example of what happens when the media take things out of context to support a political agenda, right? Again, I get that every reporter I know loathes Rick Santorum with the fire of a thousand suns. But that’s no excuse.

The only other example is a reach back to 2008 when Santorum gave a speech as a private citizen to coreligionists about how academia, and the liberal Christianity had been ravaged by a liberal agenda. It’s not the best example of his current public campaign, as much as the Drudge Report and various other media have tried to make it so.

Another area where data would have been nice is here:

Romney, Santorum’s main rival for the nomination, struggles with conservatives not only because he once supported legalized abortion, which he now condemns, but also from distrust of Mormon teaching among some Christians. He rarely speaks directly about his faith or any other.

Now, the list of why various conservatives don’t trust or like Mitt Romney is pretty long and goes far beyond his former support for abortion. That should be mentioned. But how do we know that he suffers from distrust of his Mormon teaching? I mean, I’m familiar with this Gallup study showing that self-identified Democrats are more hostile to Mormons than self-identified Protestants. And I know that the percentage of folks who say they would be hesitant to vote for a Mormon has remained pretty constant since at least the 1960s. But are there studies showing that Romney’s struggle to connect with conservative voters is because he’s Mormon? I’m sure there must be, in order for this report to assert it so steadfastly, but why not mention which study it is? Inquiring minds and all that.

The story includes some mention of Evangelical and Catholic efforts over the year and then ends with a quote from a Republican who is critical of Santorum.

Like I said, it’s just kind of a weird piece. Perhaps it would have been better to speak to some actual Santorum supporters of the evangelical variety in a story about them and about how they’re so confused about his religion.

Picture of confused man via Shutterstock.

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  • Bill

    this Gallup study showing that self-identified Democrats are more hostile to Mormons than self-identified Protestants.

    Could it be because the Mormon is running against a Democrat president?

    After reading Dick Cavett’s snotty, ignorant, puerile rant, I recalled Truman Capote’s line about Kerouac: “That’s not writing. It’s typing.”

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    Were I pitching stories about this election and how religion is playing a role — how about something on the groups of Catholics who consider themselves Evangelical? While probably not the majority of Catholics (especally worldwide), they aren’t exactly stastical noise either.

    But is Santorum one of them? I have no idea. Is Gingrich? What’s the difference? Could the MSNBC/AP/WaPo even tell me?

  • Richard Mounts

    Dear Dorothy K Carter, perhaps your political rant has points worth discussion, but this blog is about how journalists present religion in the news. I believe most of your comments are better for political blogs. I do agree that the election is not (or should not be) about choosing a Pastor-in-Chief. So this blog might be a good place to examine how the MSM has fallen into the trap of letting campaign flacks “use” religion to spice up a story.

  • Martha

    Okay, I know that the person who writes the headline is not the same as the person who wrote the story, but come on: “Santorum benefits from mistaken religious identity”?

    Some journalists covering the various candidates don’t know (or can’t be bothered) to find out exactly what denomination Mr. Santorum is (hey, if he’s conservative on issues X, Y or Z, that must mean he’s a fundy, right?) but somehow that translates into the public not knowing the difference?

    Is that projection or something? “It’s your fault for being too dumb to know if he’s one of you or not?”

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    The headline made me do a double-take. I read the story, expecting to read about a poll showing that Republican voters who are confused about Santorum’s religious affiliation are more likely to support him.

    I kept reading and reading, waiting to get to the part of the story that would reflect the claims made in the headline. I never found it.

    The truth is, AP has hit on a great story. A half-century after Kennedy’s election, the Protestant-Catholic antagonism in U.S. politics has almost completely disappeared. And it’s not just northern liberal mainline Protestants who are embracing Catholic politicians. It’s conservative Southern evangelicals.

    The story is interesting. The headline is horrible.

  • Chris

    The MSM continues to struggle with the right cubby hole for Catholics.

  • Jettboy

    “But how do we know that he suffers from distrust of his Mormon teaching?”

    We Mormons know it. You don’t go for more than 100 years, or at least 30 years of the modern Evangelical Christian attacks that makes the liberal attacks a recent phenomenon and NOT know it. Those who aren’t Mormon might not understand the “dog whistles,” but we Mormons know them very well. I think that is one reason there are a good number of Democrat Mormons who support Romney. Not that they care to vote for him eventually, but to put a stick in the eye of anti-Mormonism.

    http://www.article6blog.com/2012/01/05/a-stop-romney-effort-after-iowa/

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jettboy,

    I’m not saying it’s not there, but if it is, it should be easy to substantiate.

  • Bob Smietana

    People align more by affinity than denomination in religion in the US. So it’s no surprise that evangicals would like Santorum. Confused is the wrong word for the headline but I’m not sure what the right word is

  • Jettboy

    “I’m not saying it’s not there, but if it is, it should be easy to substantiate.”

    How do you do that? People these days, especially conservatives, know your not supposed to express your dislikes toward a group of people or liberals will pound you. Its a problem that more and more analysts have realized. You have to rely on “dog whistle” questions that in themselves obscure the findings. The charges that Romney is “weird” and that he “lies” and is a “flip-flopper,” even when he does exactly what the other candidates do (such as the pro-choice years of Santorum and multiple political positions of Gingrich) are the exact same charges made generally toward Mormons. (Read Article VI Blog where they discuss this a lot). We have heard it all before and recognize the insinuations. This isn’t a support of Romney as there are a lot of Mormons who don’t support him, but much of what is said represents years of interactions that cannot simply be dismissed as pure politics.

  • http://facebook.com/jdeklittle George

    “Which is it, Bill? Fervid subset of evangelical Christianity or a Catholic who wears his faith on his sleeve?”

    I don’t see any contradiction here. It seems to me that Santorum is among a large group of Catholics who don’t mind also identifying as evangelical.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Anyone who is familiar with the history of Protestant-Catholic relations – particularly among conservative Protestants – ought to be amazed at the support Santorum and Gingrich receive from evangelical Protestants. That’s the story here, and I wonder if journalists are missing it because they are so used to thinking about religious in purely “political” terms. I agree with Bob Smietana that people now align more closely by affiliation than by denomination, but that in itself is one of the major US religious stories of the past 20 years. My wife’s late grandmother found it inconceivable when some people she knew moved their membership from a Christian Church to a Southern Baptist Church. Most of my peers (I’m in my 30s) find it inconceivable that someone wouldn’t move freely between the two.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Perhaps you are not aware that the Southern Baptist Convention and other Evangelical denominations have active campaigns to tell their membership that Mormons are “not Christian” and therefore that every Mormon who claims to be Christian is a liar whose word cannot be trusted about anything he says. That was precisely the statement made by the head of the Southern Baptist Convention in South Carolina, that Romney woyld not be accepted because Mormobs lie when they claim to be Christian. This is not simething that was trotted out for the 2008 or 2012 presidential campaigns, it is something the Baptists have been preaching for decades. When people think God wants them to clasdify Romney as a liar, it is a high hurdle for him to overcome.

    This Baptist fear of Mormons was.best illustrated when they held their 1998 national convention in Salt Lake City to raise aeareness of the Mormon threat, which they calculated was “stealing” 40,000 Baptist “sheep” away from their paid pastors every year. It has become even more acute as total SBC membership leveled off, and now for fuve years has been declining at 50,000 net members a year.

    There are innumetable comments from voters who admit that Romney starts with a ctedibilty deficit in their eyes.by dint of his Mormon faith, and it is a pernicious defamation that is teinforced whenever he asserts that he, like other Mormons, is a person whise faith centers in Christ.

  • Julia

    people now align more closely by affiliation than by denomination

    Does “affiliation” mean family & friends or issue positions or something else?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    A liberal Protestant oftentimes feels more comfortable with a liberal Catholic than with a conservative Protestant.

    Likewise, a conservative Protestant oftentimes feels more comfortable with a conservative Catholic than with a liberal Protestant.

  • Julia

    Thanks, Truth. That makes it clearer.


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