Why the Left Loves Santorum: The “Threat” of the Religious Right

Lately, Rick Santorum has been feeding red meat like crazy to social conservatives, portraying himself as such a rabid cultural warrior that he is a bombastic flourish away from donning a Viking helmet, hoisting a broadsword and leading a charge toward some combination of Valhalla and 1950s suburban America. In just the last few days alone, Santorum has criticized Barack Obama’s “phony theology” of elevating the environment above humanity, taken aim at mandatory coverage of prenatal care by insurers, and insists we need to “rebuild the family and the church.” Comments such as these have fired up the Republican base, and Santorum is now leading his main rival, Mitt Romney, both nationally and in Romney’s home state of Michigan. If Romney, who only seems to resonate with other rich people and fellow electronic appliances, cannot win Michigan, where his father was governor, some pundits speculate party elites will push a “dark horse” candidate into the race, to pick up enough delegates to force a “brokered convention.” In other words, the GOP Establishment will frustrate the democratic primary process and anoint a candidate of their choosing, eschewing letting the “best man win” principle in favor of forcing Republican voters to rally behind whomever they are told their candidate will be.

Honestly, I find the prospect of a “brokered convention” more interesting (and I use that word loosely) than Santorum’s Religious Right talking points. If Romney is unelectable because he is too moderate (as well as being about as exciting as a bowl of Kashi Extra Fiber cereal), Santorum may well win in the Bible Belt but flop virtually everywhere else. The political center, while it may expect candidates to profess their religious faith in order to qualify just for consideration, gets uncomfortable at the prospect of a holy roller who is not just vehement in his or her opposition to abortion, but to cultural questions long considered settled – such as contraception. The recent dust-up over the Obama administration requiring religious institutions to cover their employees’ birth control costs owed more to the intrusion of the federal government into the operations of private organizations, not because most Catholics actually think condoms and spermicidal lubricant are tools of the Devil. U.S. citizens enjoy preserving their religious freedom, but they also regularly exercise their freedom to choose what aspects of their religion to follow. An unequivocal Bible-thumper like Santorum may play well among evangelical zealots, but he is a parody to everyone else – an uptight, sanctimonious neo-Puritan, complete with drab sweater vests and a Supercuts hairdo.

And this is exactly why progressives love him. It is why he tops the list of news items on Google News, why my Facebook feed is inundated with links to stories about how crazy Santorum is, and why – despite the fact that he belongs on the fringe, that his political career is a dead end, that he borders on irrelevance – he galvanizes so much attention. Indeed, rare are the editorial pieces or blog posts gushing over how great Santorum is. It is far more common to find pages devoted to how he is alienating moderates, how his views are backwards and sexist, how he represents everything that is wrong with Christian fundamentalism and its influence on U.S. politics. Progressives love him because he is the perfect punching bag; he is an easily identifiable face they can attach to their target on the rhetorical firing range, as they launch fiery diatribes against delusional deists.

I should say that I am no fan of the Religious Right. Yet my objection to it stems not from a distaste for religious dogma, but for how plutocrats have used that dogma to manipulate working class voters, inducing them to work actively against their economic interests. Deeply red states, such as my own home state of Oklahoma, used to be deeply red in another sense. Oklahoma especially boasted its fair number of socialists at the turn of the 20th century.  Over the course of the last hundred years, however, the people in the poorest parts of the country were encouraged to care more about abortion and same-sex marriage than full employment, the 40 hour week or income equality. Those on the East and “Left” Coasts have come to believe that residents in “fly-over country” always clung to their Bible, existing as little more than reactionary provincial peasants, completely ignoring the likes of Woody Guthrie, the Ludlow massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain. The prevalence of religion in middle America, in their minds, automatically precludes people in that region from achieving genuine consciousness, from realizing what is best for them. In their view, Santorum is the natural consequence of what religious people want in a leader, a symptom of a shared disease. In my opinion, though, he and others like him are truly to blame, using religion to bolster political sanctimony, just as politicians did during Prohibition in the 1920s (the temperance movement) and the Red Scare during the Cold War (communists as “godless” heathens). To see religion only as a harmful virus in the body politic is to dismiss how Christian values spurned on the campaigns to end slavery, establish a social safety net and every anti-war movement in our history.

Iconoclasts, however, do not make distinctions; they often do not look to see where they are swinging their hammers. In our culture today, certain individuals have made reputations for wielding very large blunt objects against religion: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, to name a few. It is no coincidence that they truly found their niche in the mainstream after September 11th, 2001, when fundamentalist Islam became the new “evil” ideology, replacing National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism. Obviously, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens did not make their names arguing exclusively against Islam, but (as I am sure they realized) it was the most profitable strain of ardent atheism on the market at the time. They were (and remain) especially popular on the Left, where their rejection of moral relativism provides cover for left-wingers, once inclined to evaluate ideas and practices in context, to accept that not all cultures are equally morally developed, and that – as we all “know” deep down – we in the secular West are morally superior to the rest of the world. Whereas it was once positive to differentiate between different moralities, doing so has now become a sign of weakness, a loss of conviction. One should have the courage, these committed, confrontational atheists argue, to reduce all religious observance to the pathetic need of dupes to have “easy answers” to the world. Religious experience that transcends this simplification, such as members of a community coming together through communal worship, or those who seek the mystical ecstasy in some sort of spiritual connection, all falls under the category of absurd fallacies. Seeing the world in this way, classified into science and superstition, black and white, allows us all to get away from tricky critical thinking and to make bold pronouncements – such as Harris’ “Islam… has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death” or Hitchens’ appreciation for cluster bombs being able to kill large numbers of evil “Islamo-fascists.”

We can easily see how absolutist atheism enables the Left to cheerlead the War on Terror; you only need to watch an episode of Bill Maher to see this in action (not that I encourage doing so). But when sites like Salon, the Atlantic or Mother Jones beat you over the head with just how goddamn crazy Rick Santorum is, I believe it’s emblematic of the same thing. Instead of offering us a subtle, nuanced exploration for how religion is being used in politics as an instrument to certain ends, we get unrealistic, absurd Chicken Little hysteria about how the U.S. is headed toward a Christian theocracy, and that is just what we will get if those yokels in Peoria get their dithers.

The threat is non-existent. No amount of coverage will make Santorum relevant. Instead of getting all worked up about Santorum and the “danger” he poses, those militant troops on the other side of the cultural war should ponder something. One of the assertions often made by those “radical atheists” is that people hold beliefs based on emotional comfort and social ties, and that when combined with severe self-confidence, these beliefs can result in hasty, incorrect understandings of how the world really is. They may find they have more in common with the opposing force than they thought.

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