Rick Santorum, one of the conservative Republicans vying to be the GOP presidential nominee, has hurt his chances of being selected by espousing views on religion that alienate many Americans. In contrast, a recent civic exercise for 12-year-olds illustrated a positive approach to teaching social and moral values.
Volunteering at an “Ethics Day” for 12-year-old school children turned out to be a rewarding way to spend a morning. A local, secular, civil-society coalition organized the half-day event; a nearby Jewish temple provided the facilities; and all sixth graders from two area elementary schools took a break from their regular school day to participate. The point of the exercise was to stress how ethical choices determine the kind of schools, communities, and world in which we live. Ethical dilemmas were presented for discussion, and the challenge of reconciling what one could do in certain situations, what one would do, and what one should do was highlighted.
Every religion, faith, and creed could endorse the universalisms that underpinned the deliberations. It was agreed that integrity comes from living basic values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, compassion, responsibility, and respect. The tenor of the presentations and discussions was practical and respectful, yet also idealistic and inspirational. The approach was non-theological, nondenominational, and non-divisive. It showed how moral conduct and civic duty can be inspired in a pluralistic, diverse society in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t cause offense—and supplements moral and religious guidance provided through family and private faith.
Rick Santorum and his evangelical supporters would likely find the formula followed at “Ethics Day” to be wanting. He recently said he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and he accused President Barack Obama of “advancing a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible”.
In what has effectively become a two-man race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and himself, Santorum’s elevation of divisive social wedge issues is also clever politics. Part of Santorum’s recent rhetoric is unquestionably belief—he is a deeply religious man. Part of it is also deliberate strategy. Some of the continued lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the core of the Republican Party relates to mistrust of his Mormonism and his reluctance to speak about his faith and how it informs who he is. By speaking so forcefully about his own faith and views, the Catholic Santorum is intentionally making this contrast with Romney. While Republican voters are also unsure whether Romney is a real conservative, Santorum assures all he is a “full-spectrum” conservative.
The politics surrounding the presidential campaign also explains why Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the other conservative Republic presidential hopeful, berated President Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the disrespectful burning of the Koran at the U.S. airbase outside Kabul. Obama’s apology had struck me as totally appropriate and, in fact, essential after the inflammatory treatment, albeit not intentioned, of Islam’s holy book.
This overreach and heated rhetoric on social and religious matters has, I think, backfired for Santorum. He already has the evangelical vote sown up—although there is still some dwindling support for Gingrich—so continuing to hammer away on these themes is counter productive for his presidential ambitions. The brighter prospects of the U.S. economy also partly explains this pivot from focusing on the economy, but highlighting religion in the public sphere and social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans for the general election. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 senatorial reelection campaign by 18 percentage points largely due to his views on faith and gay rights.
The longer the divisive Republican nomination battle continues, the less likely Republicans will unify for the November election against President Obama, and the greater the possibility of a third candidate emerging to contest the election—which would split the conservative vote.
A protest poster at a recent Santorum rally said it all to me: “America is a democracy, not a theocracy”. Long live separation of church and state.