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.

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.

  • Contrarian

    I believe that in the context of the Santorum quote you cited, Santorum is actually talking specifically about Kennedy. Something about “Kennedy’s speech makes me want to vomit.”

  • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    I don’t think Santorum is a conservative Catholic. The conservative Catholic position is against the death penalty, in favour of socialised medicine, against war, in favour of higher education, and accepts the theory of evolution and common descent (though seeing it as God’s mechanism of creation). Santorum may call himself a Catholic, but he’s more like a Protestant of a US fundamentalist persuasion.

    • Anders

      Or at least sees the wisdom of pretending to be…

    • kisekileia

      This is completely accurate and a really, really good point.

    • karmakin

      In terms of the moral force put behind those issues, NONE of it matters to the Catholic hierarchy. They are boilerplate, the text is there for everybody to see, but it’s hidden down a set of broken stairs, in a dark basement, guarded by a tiger.

      Christianity, on the conservative side, over the last decade or two has evolved to a point where nothing else matters except theism in and of itself. It’s probably not even accurate to call them Christians anymore, as the gospel of Jesus Christ plays second stage to the “Will of God”.

    • amavra

      He reminds me of a sect of ultra conservative Catholics, often labeled a cult – American Society of the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. It is headed in Pennsylvania and they are strong proponents of making the USA a Catholic theocracy. Seems to fit. A terrifying prospect for sure.

      • Steve

        He is affiliated with Opus Dei. That’s close enough I suppose

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches Ed Brayton

    A friend of mine had this conversation with her daughter tonight:

    Kid: Is that Duggar lady pregnant again?

    Mom: Yeah, but she lost it.

    Kid: She needs a new hobby.

  • Irreverend Bastard

    Rick Santorum is not a Catholic, he’s a Fundamentalist Christian. Catholics listen to the Pope, Santorum only listens to the voices in his own head.

    I have to say, if the voters manage to elect Santorum as President of the United States of America, then they fully deserve whatever happens to them during the ensuing theocracy.

    Sadly, the rest of the world will also suffer.

    • Steve

      Most Catholics don’t really listen to the Pope or do what the Vatican commands. Especially when it comes to things like sexuality and birth control. The Catholic Church can only sanction employees and theologians, but they can’t really do anything to get lay people in line since excommunication is reserved for extreme transgressions

  • redwood

    And of course this leads to my favorite Groucho Marx story. On his show “You Bet Your Life” back in the 50s or 60s, he was interviewing a woman with 8 or 10 children. When he asked her why she had so many, she said it was because she loved her husband. To which he replied (and was suspended from TV for it for a while), “Well, I love my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”

  • Nathaniel

    Its real simple. Power has become more important than theology. They’ll happily be back at each other’s throats when the clerics are in power.

  • jose

    Nothing brings people together like a common enemy. In this case, the enemy used to be Islam; now, it’s gays and women.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      You must be young. I remember when it was Communism.

      Anyways, Islam is still among the enemies — and some people like Dinesh DeSouza have managed to combine the bogey-persons by asserting that the reason the Islamists are pissed at us is for being so nice and permissive to gays and women. So we should, like, toss our gays and women under the bus to appease Al Qaeda. Or something.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X