A number of social conservatives, sensing that Rick Santorum has hit a trip wire, are complaining that he’s being skewered for being a social conservative. That’s demonstrably wrong. The nonstop flaps (some of which concern past episodes that now have come to light) over the last couple of weeks have nothing to do with Santorum’s pro-life views or even his opposition to gay marriage. They have to do with his desire to uproot decades-old trends (e.g. women in the workplace, women in combat, use of contraception) and to use religious terminology and judgments to cast aspersions on his opponents (e.g. “phony theology,” the devil has infiltrated American institutions). In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion.

A reactionary is one who seeks to return to a previous state of affairs. It is not a conservative outlook, which in the Burkean sense looks to people as they are, prefers modest over the radical solutions and builds on the existing morals and habits of the society. It is conservative to argue the president should respect and accommodate religious institutions; It is reactionary to go on a quest against contraception and pre-natal testing, both of which the vast majority of Americans utilize or approve of.

Santorum is reactionary in his discomfort with women working outside the home (other than his own working mother, presumably), who he claims were bamboozled by greed or “radical feminists” into seeking fulfillment and equality in the workplace. He is reactionary in declaring that women in the military are fit only to “fly small planes,” but not take on the duties they have been assuming under battlefield conditions for years. He is reactionary in telling women (married ones, even!) that contraception is harmful to them.

Unlike a think tanker or pundit who wants to elucidate the adverse impact of social trends, he is running for president where, through policy and the bully pulpit, he intends to wage war on post-1960 America.

Ronald Reagan didn’t run with such a perspective. Neither did George W. Bush. No Republican nominee ever has. Conservatives in public office have striven to restrain the size and growth of the state as a means of promoting liberty. Santorum wants to instruct us that there’s no right to absolute liberty, and he’ll tell us what sort of liberty is harmful and what is not. This misconceives at a fundamental level what it is we ask politicians to do and what voters want and expect from political leaders.

Santorum, however, tells us that this is precisely what will be at the core of his presidency:

One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, “Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.”

It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it — and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong — but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.

Again, I know most Presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These how profound impact on the health of our society.

Republicans may win an election fighting against the excesses and failures of the Obama administration while promoting an alternative vision of conservative reform, one rooted in the free market and respect for individual freedom. They will be clobbered running on the reactionary platform on which Santorum is seeking to use the power of the state and of his office to reorder society according to his theology.

The irony of Santorum’s “phony theology” point is that had he been directing his comments to the president’s absurd assertions in the recent prayer breakfast that his tax plan is rooted in scripture, he would have had a point. But Santorum isn’t interested in getting theology out of statecraft; Rather, he’s interested in substituting his own theology. That is politically untenable for most Americans and, in its own way, would be as radical an undertaking as Obama’s efforts to remodel America along the lines of Western European nations.