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Georgetown/ On Faith
Posted at 10:33 AM ET, 10/19/2011

Rick Santorum makes faith pitch at GOP debate


Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas. (Chris Carlson - AP)
Tuesday night’s spirited and smackdownish GOP debate paid some attention to an issue that has been inexplicably absent from recent candidate get-togethers: faith.

The lack of attention to this subject is understandable to a certain degree. As Pastor Robert Jeffress’s recent anti-Mormon effusions have taught Rick Perry, discussions about religion in politics can have combustively negative consequences.

Perhaps Republican higher ups have concluded that in this dreadful economic climate, the so-called social issues ought take a back seat and be relegated to events sponsored by the always invigorating Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in coldest February.

Too, say what you will about Barack Obama, but he is not necessarily vulnerable to religiously tinged assaults. Old-school liberal Democrats may be puzzled by his super-sized Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Yet the Office does inoculate him against the devastating Republican talking point that Democrats are cultured despisers of religion.

Factor in the president’s over-the-top religious oratory and he appears virtually unassailable on religious grounds. Obamaprayer is much harder to attack than Obamacare.

At last night’s debate at least one candidate was chomping at the bit to talk about faith. Rick Santorum refracted all queries through the optic of religion. He tarred Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan as “anti-family.” A query about Latino citizens led Santorum to comment: “the Latino community understands the importance of faith.” He also mentioned his work on the partial birth abortion act.

In all likelihood, the former senator from Pennsylvania is betting that he can Huckabize the Iowa caucus. Much as Mike Huckabee rained on Romney’s Iowa parade back in 2008 by carrying Evangelicals, Santorum will endeavor to become the Christian Right’s candidate and to finish (unexpectedly) in the top three.

Eventually, others would come around to the subject. Pastor Jeffress, mentioned above sure hit a nerve when he referred to Mormonism as “a cult.” With that indiscretion serving as the backdrop, the candidates were asked whether voters should pay attention to a candidate’s religion. All of the answers were at once intriguing and confused

Santorum opined that it was legitimate to look at the tenets and teachings of a candidate’s values (as opposed to his or her religion). Undermining a good answer, Santorum instantly correlated those values with one’s religion; in his case Catholicism.

Romney invoked the Founding Fathers, in an attempt to argue that they did not want people to pay attention to the particular faith of a politician or citizen. Though I would caution that the founders were famously not of one mind on this issue. While James Madison could advocate for complete governmental “non-cognizance” of religion, the inscrutable George Washington would intone: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Rick Perry, who had been endorsed by Pastor Jeffress (and perhaps wishes he had not been), also called upon the Founding Fathers, drawing an association between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The pastor, he implied, is free to say whatever he wants—and that’s what great about America! (True, that). Though Perry did concede: “I said I did not agree with Pastor Jeffress’ remarks, I can’t apologize any more than that.” (To which Romney added “that’s fine”)

Newt Gingrich insisted that faith does matter. He quoted the Declaration of Independence and (slightly misquoted) the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, a text whose third section begins with the lofty locution: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government...” (Gingrich did not, however, cite the controversial “Treaty of Tripoli” (ratified in 1797) which stipulates: “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”).

Representative Bachmann was strangely muted on the topic as were the other candidates. Faith and values issues are certainly important to the GOP hopefuls. Though last night all, save Santorum, seemed uncertain has to how to press these issues to their advantage.

By Jacques Berlinerblau  |  10:33 AM ET, 10/19/2011

 
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