“We need to create a rich society with lots of places for you to go before you go to the government for help and assistance in the problems that you’re dealing with. Charities, churches. It’s no wonder that the president, one of his tax proposals, sought to limit charitable contributions. They get in the way of government, you know, in providing for you,” Santorum told the Detroit Economic Club. “Families get in the way of government and your reliance on it.”
It was his comments about Obama — which he said were about the president’s environmentalism rather than his faith — that landed Santorum in the spotlight just as his candidacy was surging. He spent most of last weekend explaining his remarks.
In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Santorum said he does not question whether Obama is a Christian. He insisted that his comment about Obama’s “phony theology” was being misconstrued.
“I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” he said in the interview.
Two days later, Santorum blamed the media for picking the theology remark out of his “hundreds and hundreds of hours” of speeches and town halls, delivered without teleprompters. He said that voters find his unscripted speak-from-the-heart style refreshing and authentic.
“I’ll defend everything I’ll say — because it comes from here,” he said, indicating his heart.
At the same time, Mitt Romney has made similar claims about his Obama and religion in the wake of the contraception controversy, arguing at a town hall in Michigan on Tuesday that Obama associates with people with a “secular agenda” who have “fought against religion.”
Yet Santorum’s comments have the potential to sound extreme. Earlier this week, the Drudge Report led the day with a report of a 2008 Santorum speech in which he warned that Satan had set his sights on the nation.
That and other stories make some Republicans nervous about the prospect of a Santorum nomination, which independents could view as divisive and Democrats could use as a rallying cry.
“I think historically, religion has been divisive when it’s gotten connected with politics,” said John Danforth, who served 20 years as a Republican senator from Missouri. “I think Republicans are better if they stick with the big issues and the economic issues and the power of government and don’t frame it in religious terms.”
An ordained Episcopal minister, Danforth argued in a pair of 2005 New York Times columns that Republicans had become too entangled with the religious right. He has endorsed Romney but said he has not “fallen into a faint” over Santorum’s words.
“I don’t think that Santorum would say that people who don’t agree with him are not religious people,” Danforth said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said he does not think that Santorum has questioned Obama’s Christianity or the sincerity of the faith of his opponents. But he urged caution.
“It is very shaky ground to even come close to the line,” he said. “It tends to blow up in your face, politically.”
To some, Santorum’s language is part of his appeal, said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Iowa-based Family Leader, whose endorsement helped Santorum defeat Romney in the state’s caucuses.
“He’s transparent, he’s authentic and he’s not trying to play games with his message,” Vander Plaats said. “I think it goes to the core of Rick Santorum. I’m quite sure he believes that this is a battle of worldviews and the worldviews are simply ‘God is’ or ‘God isn’t.’ ”
He said Santorum will attract independents looking for authenticity rather than a candidate who falls in the “mushy middle.”
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez in Arizona contributed to this report.