Last week in New Hampshire, former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum appeared to be the first likely GOP presidential hopeful to inject the right’s sharia paranoia into the 2012 presidential race, claiming: “Sharia law is incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution.”

Santorum added, “Sharia law is not just a religious code. It is also a governmental code. It happens to be both religious in nature an origin, but it is a civil code. And it is incompatible with the civil code of the United States.”

As I wrote yesterday, while most Republicans talk about sharia in the context of an imminent imposition of Taliban-style Islamic law, a Muslim adhering to sharia in their personal life is someone adhering to prayer customs and dietary restrictions. The recent bans on sharia being imposed by Republican state legislatures are what’s really incompatible with the Constitution, because they interfere with individual Muslims’ ability to enter into marriage agreements and commercial transactions according to their own religious views. Just as with any other contract, civil law takes precedent when there’s a conflict.

As Justin Elliot notes, Santorum’s remarks foreshadow the possiblity that sharia could become a real issue in the 2012 GOP primary. This is particularly true, given that a number of potential candidate have a habit of eschewing policy realities for culture war red meat.

Adding to the likelihood that this could happen, recall that Fox News, an organization whose audience is extremely hostile to Islam and whose coverage of Muslims is peppered withanti-Muslim stereotypes, is hosting a presidential primary debate in May and will have an early opportunity to make this a “serious” issue. If Fox News presses the candidates to take a position on whether or not they will defend America against the phantom menace of Taliban-style Islamic law, it could push other media organizations into treating the issue seriously just to prove they’re not “biased.” It wouldn’t be the first time Fox’s agitation got other traditional news orgs to pick up on one of the network’s bogus obsessions.

That the far-flung conspiracy theory that American Muslims are on the verge of imposing sharia on the U.S. could possibly be a GOP primary issue is a sad commentary on how far the party has fallen since President George W. Bush urged tolerance. But whether or not media organizations treat the panic with the level of skepticism it deserves is within their own power.