Apr 7, 2011

Rick Santorum's secular pluralism

Something that's often missed in talk about the Christian Right is the way it's not theologically monolithic. For a group that sometimes seems intent upon some kind of Bible-based law, or at least a governing Christian consensus, there is actually a really wide range of conflicts about the right way to be Christian and debates about what the Bible (simply and literally) says.

Conservative American Christians may agree on something like abortion, or homosexuality, but those are only public, civil morality issues*. On another level, though, a level which they think of as more essential, they're hotly opposed to each other.

This is maybe most clear in the noted distrust evangelicals have of Mormons -- a distrust voiced by Mike Huckabee -- but there're also less noted clashes. Southern Baptists, for example, have very different ideas about the Biblical role of women than do Sarah Palin's Assemblies of God. George Bush's Methodists are deeply uncomfortable with Pat Robertson's Pentecostals' beliefs about the active role of demons in the world. That's not even starting with Catholics**.

And the fact is, the theological groups bunched together under the heading "Religious Right" are the groups who are distinctive in large part because of their willingness to schism and split, to withdraw from cooperative and collaborative engagements and dissent from broad, ecumenical tolerance. A willingness -- even insistence -- on separating from those who believe differently is more characteristic of these groups than almost any theological point that could be articulated with any specificity.

This means a tricky, delicate move is necessary: Christian doctrines must, at once, be held as crucial for public positions, crucial for public officials, crucial for the country, and as irrelevant on the level of details. There's a just-enough-but-not-to-much that holds this thing together.

Look at how Christian Right 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum phrases it:
Voters should consider the candidate's moral framework and what they believe about right and wrong. Obviously your faith has a role in that, in constructing your moral view and your worldview, your ethical code. As far as theological tenets goes, those don't necessarily affect the public discourse. It's important to understand and know the tenets and teaching of the faith with respect to how people live their lives.
The assumption that one's "moral framework" and "moral view" and "worldview" -- how evangelicals have come to love that once-relativisng idea! -- directly results in certain actions and decisions and programs could be considered more critically, but note, here, just how the argument is, in essence, that it matters and it doesn't matter.

There's a line somewhere in Santorum's mind where God and the Bible and Jesus stop being relevant to public issues. Which turns out to be necessary for a Catholic like him to join with Baptists and Mormons and Pentecostals in making theology relevant to certain public issues, like the legality of certain types of non-procreative sex***, or the way economics is taught in public schools.

This is one of the ways that talking about the Religious Right as theocratic, and mongering this fear about how they're plotting and designing a Christianist republic evidences a misunderstanding of the nature of this group****.

Pluralism is essential to their existence, even when they think of themselves as opposing it. The secular sphere and the idea of part of the the secular sphere where theological tenants have no effect is necessary even just to imagining how those tenants could have an effect somewhere else.

Theology in politics in today's America is tricky exactly because it can't be ruled out and also can't be ruled in. This is as true for the firm yet internally conflicted alliance of the Christian Right as it is for anyone else.

*It seems that the last time "conservative Christians" aggressively disagreed on an issue of public import and civic morality was slavery. This is very misleading, though, as it is largely these issues, as much as actual theological positions, that have come to define conservative Christians as conservative Christians, with certain public stands or issues functioning to mark one as "out," and thus not to be taken seriously. It's possible that prominent evangelicals such as Rick Warren taking positive positions on "liberal" issues like AIDS in Africa or global climate change could change this, so that one could be a conservative, squarely evangelical Christian and feel free to take a range of political positions, but we'll see.
**Though public policy cooperation has done more to reduce anti-Catholic bigotry in America than anything since Kennedy's civil beatification. As those most likely to be suspicions of the unAmericanness of Catholics and the unChristianness of Catholics now experience them as being co-belligerents in the moral crisis of the age, they're unlikely to conceive of them as subversive enemies in other areas.
***Now there's a really interesting example of how public policy agreements are not the same as theological agreement. Opposition to gay marriage is not the same as agreeing on what marriage is, or compatible theologies of sex.
****This is not to say there are no teeth to their positions. The ways they imagine and talk about reshaping American society can be extensive and significant.


  1. "A willingness -- even insistence -- on separating from those who believe differently is more characteristic of these groups than almost any theological point that could be articulated with any specificity."

    This is where is gets very interesting. The Christian right is still largely made up of White Evangelical Protestants. A group which arose out of and distinct from fundamentalism by rejecting concepts of secondary separation (Refusing to fellowship with those who fellowship with false Christians) while still holding to primary separation (Refusing to fellowship with false Christians). There is no properly fundamentalist wing of the Christian Right.

    The Catholic contingent, while smaller in numbers but very influential would have been unthinkable prior to the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalist Catholics (Not to be confused with conservatives) would never participate in such a movement for fear of tainting themselves with the heresy of 'Americanism'.

  2. Isn't there an American Catholic political tradition going back well before Vatican II, though?

    Al Smith started in politics, according to Wikipedia, back in 1903 ....

  3. Daniel,

    This is true but there were serious questions about the illicitness of such participation on a theological level. Which is to say Al Smith would have had problems utilizing an explicitly religious engagement with politics in the way the Religious Right does. There are Catholics active in American politics beginning with the signing of the Declaration of Independence itself but no explicitly theological justification was used for it.

    Pope Leo XIII was deeply disturbed by this and Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae condemned the American political system itself as heretical.

    John Courtney Murry's writings were at various times suppressed until the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae which he helped draft.

  4. Great astute article. What the religious right have in common, apart from their hatred of the left, is their ability to turn a blind eye to inconvenient truths. I suppose that's not surprising as their underlying belief system - like most religions - is predicated on ignoring facts that don't mesh with their interpretation of the world.

  5. Hi Daniel. A friend of mine posted a post of yours on his FB page, which is how I ended up here. I am a convert to Catholicism after a life-long crusade to save Catholics. One of the first things that started to soften me to the Church was the idea of Natural Law. I struggled with Christian involvement in politics, because the Bible isn't clear about what type of government a country should have, for starters, but there are also a wide range of issues that left me scratching my head. I was absolutely Sola Scriptura, and that view, I found, left me wanting. From the Catholic view, Rick Santorum (who goes to my church, but who I will not vote for due to some of his views...especially on "enhanced interrogation techniques" and support of the wars we're engaging in presently) is not trying to play cute with Evangelicals by saying, "Gee, I'm just like you!" No. Catholicism (and no, he nor I is a perfect representation of it) celebrates truth, wherever it is found. Truth is truth is truth. And it is true that abortion is gravely evil. It also teaches that there is something called Natural Law. This law is written on the heart of every man, and every man must follow it. It's not about religion. It's about how we're coded. How we're made by God. It unites rather than divides. Here's a funny and informative talk on the subject. It's by Paul Scalia. He's the son of one of the Supreme Court Justices. http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/media.htm#moral

  6. @Jaybird

    Glad you found me, however it was.

    I'm very familiar with the idea of Natural Law, in both its historic and current versions. I'm sure you're right that that Santorum and others uniting a Catholic theology with deeply right wing politics would use this idea to explain the common causes and the strange bedfellows proverbial of politics.

    And that's fine. I don't have any problem with them doing so (tho., unlike you, I found Natural Law a really problematic and un-useful idea). I understand, too, why this idea, or the Calvinist version of "common grace," might seem nicer or cleaner than secularism.

    I'd still call it secularism/pluralism, though. Not to be mean or try to trap anybody ... I just think that's what secular pluralism is.

    I might note again, my point isn't that Santorum or anybody else has betrayed their core values or is hypocritical or anything like that. My point is there's no theological monolith on the political right, they're not all promoting the same vision, but have simply made common cause. And as much as they seem to sometimes be suggesting imposing the Bible, God and Christianity on America, they still, even among themselves, accept some of the basic limits of theology on public space that are de rigur in America today.