Hearing Rick Santorum talk about contraception, religion, the separation of church and state, and culture in general I sometimes get the impression he was born in the wrong century. For all the indignation and anger from women’s groups, gay organizations, and others incensed by his insensitivity, I’m struck by the fact he makes a cogent and logical argument — by 19th Century standards.
I don’t mean that as an insult either. It’s just he’s fighting a culture war that has already been lost, and there’s not much chance to go back and refight it. He’s channeling Pope Pius IX, who put forth the “Syllabus of Errors of the Modern World” – “the scourge of liberalism” in 1864.
Consider the following quotes from Santorum, the first threefrom this campaign:
1. “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life. We have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”
2. “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
3. “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American Left who hates Christendom. … What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”
4. “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to. … What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.” (His 2005 book It Takes a Family)
5. “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. … That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.” (AP 2003)
The worst quote in my opinion is number 3 – defending the crusades. That’s historically wrong and given the times we’re in politically stupid. Will he also defend Pope Alexander VI?
Quote one arouses anger and disdain from most women who can’t imagine the violence of rape followed by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then being responsible for the child after birth. Even most anti-abortion women don’t think that way. Yet it makes sense in the traditional Catholic world view about the sanctity of life being paramount. The “rape baby” is a life, and killing it is wrong in that line of thinking.
Quote two says the only purpose of sex is reproduction (the ‘every sperm is sacred’ creed) and that with contraception immorality and lust abound without consequence. To most of us that sounds hyper-prudish. Most people think there isn’t anything really wrong with premarital sex; adultery and cheating are bad less because of the sex and more because of the betrayal and dishonesty. But before the sexual revolution starting in the 60’s, that kind of moralism was common. People didn’t live to those ideals, but they at least felt they had to pretend to.
Quote four seems horribly sexist. The idea women should stay home and men go to work reeks of the kind of family oppression women suffered for centuries. He’s also wrong about his history. The idea that children should be isolated to grow up with a parent staying in the household is a western invention. Throughout history villagers, male and female, had to work to survive, and children in the villages were cared for by a group of women/mothers. Day care is more natural to humans historically than isolation in the family unit. By the 19th century male dominated society had become the norm, and women were expected to stay home and raise kids – in German Kinder, Kueche und Kirche – children, kitchen and church. It’s only been in the last fifty years that women have started to achieve real equality in the work place — Santorum’s quote is anachronistic and sexist, yet until recently reflected what most people saw as normal and natural.
Quote five on gay marriage is similar. Sex not in line with normal social norms was weird, perverse, and scary. Two men having sex, sex with pigs or chickens, polygamy, that all got lumped together as sexual perversions. The cultural shift on the issue of homosexual rights and gay marriage has been dramatic over the last fifty years, and very evident if you talk to young people today. Young conservatives are not as closed on this as their elders – the culture has changed.
Pope Pius IX’s argument was that liberalism (at that time that meant democracy and free market capitalism) was destroying cultural norms, traditions, and the moral authority of the Church. It would bring decadence, perversion, atheism, and nihilism. Without something strong to believe in, without the moral authority of God through the Church, he argued, the material world and reason can give no sense of moral purpose – anything goes. That would be chaos, anarchy, and ultimately destruction.
When you look at Santorum’s defense of his statements, it’s clear that’s what he’s seeing. His world view reflects that of Pius IX, it’s not just petty bigotry against gays and women, but a principled (if misguided) view on the nature of society and morality.
But Pius lost that war. He was right in some ways, of course. Without tradition and a strong sense of Church authority humans have done horrid things — communism, the holocaust, etc. I myself have been a critic of runaway materialism, consumerism and a sacrifice of the spiritual for a mundane and ultimately dissatisfying materialist notion of the meaning of life. Pius IX correctly saw the dangers and the potential emptiness that a path of individualism and radical freedom would lead to.
But that’s the path we took. Most of us don’t want to go back. Yes, there are real challenges in dealing with uncertainty, no clear guidelines to truth, and the lack of the social cohesion and community that once protected our mental health and self-esteem. We’ve chosen a path that is psychologically, politically and spiritually very difficult. We choose the path of freedom and knowledge, we partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and reason.
We can’t go back. The world of Pius IX and by extension Santorum is gone. I don’t believe Santorum is psychologically a bigot or homophobe, I think he’s reflecting a set of traditional beliefs that had such things embedded within them. We had to work to show that those things were wrong and did harm to people, Santorum never learned that lesson.
This has been a weird political year. There’s something surreal about such an anachronistic yet apparently honest and principled politician making it to this level in the year 2012. It’s symbolic of the nostalgia that seems to have gripped the Republican party as it realizes the country has undergone radical cultural and demographic shifts in the past decades. He will fade; he has to. But what does it say about the state of the GOP that he can rise to such prominence, even with values so contrary to the social progress made in the last century and a half?