Monday, February 20, 2012

The Racial Component of Santorum's Obama Attacks

By Garrett FitzGerald 

Newly resurgent GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum waded into a significant theological controversy this week by decrying President Obama's policy decisions as "not based on the Bible" and motivated by what he calls a "phony theology."

The former Senator from Pennsylvania is no stranger to controversial religious rhetoric, having routinely referred to his deeply conservative interpretations of Catholic teaching in the past to justify his own anachronistic stances on issues like same-sex marriage and women's reproductive rights. But Santorum's recent remarks about President Obama's personal faith, coupled with his heated critiques of the Administration's recently-announced policy on contraceptive coverage, mark an apparent transition to a more personal assault on the President's religious identity, which could well signal that Santorum's camp is outlining strategy with sights set well beyond the GOP primary. 

Of course, calling the President's personal religious commitments into question might have another potential political perk for Santorum, and one with much more immediate collateral consequences. In a volatile GOP primary field, Santorum's most significant competitor remains former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith has proven cause for some hesitancy among the more insular elements of the Religious Right. By introducing a critique of the President's theological orthodoxy, Santorum has managed to bring a specific construction of legitimate conservative religious identity to the fore - an identity which poses continuing challenges of legitimacy for Romney - without ever explicitly naming his chief rival in the race for the GOP nomination.

For all of its potential political savvy, Santorum's critique of President Obama's theological beliefs feels fairly vacuous. The Huffington Post's Paul Brandeis Raushenbush deftly picked apart Santorum's critique, highlighting a number of valid concerns over Santorum's attempt to inject theological orthodoxy into the presidential campaign, and no doubt other pundits will have an easy time punching holes in Santorum's claims as well. But with Santorum sitting pretty in many polls in the run-up to Super Tuesday, he likely has his eyes on a bigger prize than just the GOP nomination. To that end, beyond the critiques raised by Raushenbush regarding the immediate substance of Santorum's theological challenges, it seems fairly evident that Santorum is hoping to lay the groundwork for a possible general election run by resuscitating the tired conservative rumors around President Obama's exotic and terrifying religiosity.

And here is where the under-handed art of implication comes into play. In the same way that Santorum's construction of his own supposed orthodox religious identity implies and excludes the alterity it perceives in Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, so too his oppositional construction of his own religious identity vis-√†-vis that of President Obama necessarily implies a clearly negative heterodoxy in the President's religious views as well. Or, to use Mr. Santorum's words, he is setting his own supposedly authentic religious identity and beliefs up against the "phony theology" of President Obama.  
But unlike its implicit critique of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Santorum's decision to go after the President's personal religiosity carries with it a significant amount of baggage bound up with the racial and religious bigotry that has been common currency among many in Santorum's voter base for the last several years. 
Had Santorum's comments about the President's religion been made in a cultural vacuum devoid of racial and religious intolerance and bigotry, they would still, at their very best, remain a matter of dubious theological value and fairly poor taste. But President Obama's presidential campaign and tenure in office have been dogged by competition between the Right's irrational, and frankly contradictory, concerns that he is either - hell, why not both? - a radical black liberation theologian or a secret, possibly Kenyan, Muslim. In either case, the rumors uniformly uphold the normative value of whiteness and a very particular articulation of conservative Christianity and rely on ignorant, reductionist constructions of the President as some sort of exotic, terrifying Other.

Considering how much of the misinformation about President Obama's faith has either found its genesis or its champions among the rank and file of the Republican party, the contender for that party's most coveted position cannot claim ignorance of the implications of his critique. And as the Santorum camp has scrambled to contain the fall-out from Santorum's dig at the President's religion, it has become clear that some of Santorum's staff certainly has President Obama's secret adherence to Islam on their minds. In attempting to defend Santorum's remarks about the President's faith, a slip of the tongue by Santorum campaign spokesperson Alice Stewart caused Stewart to shift from maligning the "theological secularism" underlying the Obama Administration's environmental policies to denouncing the President's "radical Islamic policies." Paging Dr. Freud.

Religious belief and religious identity are fluid, with internal and external forces constantly acting upon them, vying for legitimacy. Marshaling normative arguments in such discussions often function as an effective way to jockey for legitimacy, and identity politics play a large role in how such normative arguments are framed. As such, theological critique is not, in and of itself, a negative thing, and can actually be quite healthy for a pluralistic culture and the religious traditions that comprise it.

But Rick Santorum's attacks on President Obama's religious belief this past week go well beyond the bounds of theological difference. By breathing life back onto the still-glowing embers of bigotry and intolerance whose burning hatred for the person of this president has so consumed conservatives for the past few years, Rick Santorum has begun to set the tone for his possible general election bid. And if this past week's remarks are any indication, it looks like Santorum is ready to tread most anywhere in order to hit his base's lowest common denominator.


  1. Typical of lying, haughty Republicons. They lie and when caught in an obvious lie, they back-peddle, recant, flip~flop, retract, and use a thesaurus to say the same thing using slightly different verbiage. Then, in another audience, they retreat to their previous position and reload, ala Sarah Palin.

  2. Sad but true. They rolled out Franklin Graham on Morning Joe this morning to confirm that Newt and Santorum make the cut as Christians, but he's juuuuust not sure Obama qualifies.

    This sort of shenaniganism places a premium on the least tolerant form of Christianity, and it absolutely continues to play on the ignorance and fear of the conservative base's lingering Islamophobia. Shameless.