The Duggars, Rick Santorum, and a Religious Realignment

The Duggars have been campaigning for Rick Santorum, endorsing him wholeheartedly. The evangelicals of the Christian Right have embraced Santorum, and he is now their candidate of choice. There’s just one thing that’s odd about this picture. Santorum is Catholic.

Just over fifty years ago, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, he had to convince evangelicals and Protestants in general that he was not going to let his Catholic religious affiliation influence his politics. In fact, he had this to say about the separation of church and state:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, in contrast, is running on his religious views. I mean really, what do you know about Santorum outside of the ways he intends to legislate his religious views? Santorum has even said that he thinks the separation of church and state is a load of baloney.

I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.  The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.

Kennedy downplayed the role his religious beliefs played in his politics to get elected. Santorum is essentially running on the role his religious beliefs play in his politics to get elected. What happened? How did we manage to go from Kennedy to Santorum?

In the 1960s Americans were still largely divided into denominations. If you asked someone their religion, they would say “Methodist,” or “Episcopalian.” No one group wanted any other group gaining the reins of power and giving his denomination and its views precedence. For this reason, candidates’ religious beliefs and denominational affiliation almost never came up. After all, bringing them up could prove to be a minefield.

Kennedy had to assure Americans that he was going to follow this tradition of keeping his religious beliefs and church separate from his politics because Americans were still wary about Catholics, and most especially Catholics’ allegiance to Rome. They were concerned that a Catholic president would mean an America in thrall to Rome. Kennedy’s assurances that he endorsed the separation of church and state were not a new thing, but were simply more necessary coming from a president whose religious denomination was headquartered in a foreign country.

Since the early 1960s America has undergone a religious realignment. While we still have numerous different denominations, the conservative/liberal divide has become more important than denominational divides.

Today, a conservative Catholic has more in common when it comes to social and political views with the conservative Baptist than with his fellow liberal Catholics, and the liberal Catholic has more in common with a liberal Episcopalian than with his fellow conservative Catholics. Today, you learn more about someone by asking whether they are religious conservatives or religious liberals than by asking what denomination they attend.

Let me offer an example. Did you know Nancy Pelosi is a practicing Catholic with five grown children? I didn’t, until last week. Does Pelosi have anything in common with Santorum? Not really. They are, in terms of their social and political views, diametrically opposite. Why? Because Pelosi is a liberal Catholic and Santorum is a conservative Catholic.

The result of this religious realignment is that a conservative Christian can talk to other conservative Christians across denominational divides, and the same with a liberal Christian, and that those denominational divides can become irrelevant when it comes to areas like social views and politics.

The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Christian Right politics in general has both benefited from and played a role in this change. Christian Right leaders have striven to bring together conservative Christians on social and political issues regardless of their denominations, even reaching out to Catholics. They intentionally downplay doctrinal differences in order to bring together a group of conservative Christians who share common social and political values. And in this they have been very successful.

As culture and religious structure has changed, American religion has become strung out along a conservative-liberal spectrum rather than divided into denominational bubbles. Today, evangelicals can vote for Santorum without worrying about him imposing the pope’s will on them because they share similar religiously-based social and political values with him, values they don’t share with their liberal counterparts even in their own denominations.

And this, quite simply, is why the Duggars are out campaigning for Rick Santorum even though they probably believe that, as a Catholic, he is destined for hell.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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