Posted at 04:55 PM ET, 02/27/2012

Does Rick Santorum want religion in government? Or government out of religion?

Rick Santorum’s remarks on a Sunday news show that he does not “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute” set up a complicated question.

Does Santorum, the GOP presidential contender and former Pennsylvania senator, want churches (and religion, more broadly) to play a more active role in government? Or does he want the government to refrain from telling churches what to do?

While Santorum focused on the former on ABC’s “This Week,” it’s the latter that he’s been emphasizing on the stump.

Santorum told host George Stephanopoulos that “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.” The First Amendment, he added, “says the free exercise of religion — that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.”

But consider what he said at a Tucson Tea Party rally last week, hours ahead of the Mesa, Ariz., CNN debate.

“Essentially, we are going to have to hold together on some set of moral codes and principles,” Santorum told the crowd of about 500 tea party supporters in Tucson. “And we’re seeing very evidently what the president’s moral codes and principles are about. We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America. We saw it with Obamacare and the implementation of Obamacare where his values are going to be imposed on a church’s values.”

That would suggest that Santorum is concerned about the effects of the Obama administration’s policies on what churches can or cannot do rather than on how churches and religious people take part in public life.

Later on in the speech, Santorum struck the same note:

“America is a deeply faith-filled country, and it was from the beginning,” he said. “And it’s because of that – because we understand how important faith is in our lives – that we respect other people’s faith. And we tolerate. And we allow it into the public square. We let people’s non-faith – that’s the beautiful thing – that people who have faith actually are more respectful of folks who have different faith.”

The crowd gave Santorum a long round of applause.

“It’s the statists who are intolerant,” Santorum said. “They’re the ones who want to impose their values on everybody else.”

Santorum’s view on keeping government from dictating how churches should function in society and how they spend their money would resonate on two fronts. It’s in tune with the tea party, which stresses limited government across the board; and it also appeals to religious voters (who comprise a sizeable portion of the tea-party vote).

It’s also a different message from the one that the press has been homing in on since the Sunday interview.

Interviews with attendees after Santorum’s Tucson event suggested that voters are hearing the second argument in the candidate’s speeches — that government should not intrude on the decisions of faith-based groups.

One 50-year-old tea party supporter from Tucson pointed to Santorum’s response to the recent White House decision on whether religious-affiliated institutions should be mandated to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

“In context, what [Santorum is] saying is that government needs to stay out of religion,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “That’s all religion. That’s as bad as the government being in a mosque. It just so happens that right now [Obama has] got his fingers in Christianity. But it had nothing to do with the other way. From George Washington on, there was always prayer in Congress. But the government was supposed to stay out of religion. And that’s where Obama’s going.”

Might Santorum’s focus on religion hurt him in the race? The tea party supporter said it depends on context.

“If people are here, like today, and get to hear it in context, I think they’re all straw dogs, because almost everything I’ve heard from the press is a twisting of what’s being said,” he said.

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By  |  04:55 PM ET, 02/27/2012

 
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