Rick Santorum has found his niche.
The former Pennsylvania Senator came into the 2012 presidential campaign as someone with little or no chance at winning the Republican nomination. He had lost, soundly, in 2006 and did not have the financial support of a Mitt Romney or a Ron Paul. For Santorum to become relevant, he had to offer something different and be effective at it.
Santorum has found his niche, and it is one that is close to him personally. For some time now, he has run as a strictly social conservative candidate. The posture has helped him win support in the midwest and keep Romney from securing an early knockout victory. In a campaign mostly focused on economic issues, Santorum has attempted to make it about social issues and causes.
To give Santorum credit, he has been effective in his niche. That doesn’t mean it comes without faults or challenges. Santorum’s niche is to parlay his faith as a Christian into a political victory as the GOP nominee for president and a win over President Obama in November. It comes with a cost of playing the “us versus them” card that is prevalent in political campaigns. It is a card that has been used, unfortunately, several times this week by Santorum and his supports, which, while helping his campaign, only hurts the message and witness of the church.
On the campaign trail in Ohio, Santorum compared his theology with that of the president’s saying Obama’s was a “phony theology.” He would later add, essentially, that Obama is trying to make his views about government fit his faith. While Santorum is right that, as followers of Christ, our theology and engagement with the public square should be based on our faith, the impact of his statement is not what was meant. Santorum’s comment suggests that Obama is “not like us,” which, unfortunately, has been the main stance used by many against the president. Fuel was added to the fire when his spokesperson, Alice Stewart, attempted to say what this meant.
Then today, Franklin Graham helps Santorum’s cause, indirectly, by going on MSNBC and saying that one has to “assume” Obama is a Christian, while not needing to make the same assumptions about Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Graham’s interview helps play into the idea that Obama is “not like us,” but also shows the dangers pastors have when stepping into the public square.
We should not be surprised by any of these comments. Since America’s earliest days, politicians have danced on the thin line of proper public engagement of Christians and using the church for political gain. It is a dangerous dance and one that must be done carefully. As someone who is interested as a pastor and theologian in public engagement, I’m not sure it can be done by someone who is seeking to win an elected office. There is too much to be gained, personally, that it can weaken and skew the intent of the message.
While we should not be surprised that politicians make these comments and use their faith for political gain, we should be concerned when it happens. This is equally true if it is a Republican or a Democrat. Politicians who use their faith for political purpose also become voices of the church. To the world, they become a reflection of the witness of the church. Tactics used to win a political election can turn off someone from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope that comes in receiving him into your life. These comments, and others like them, hurt the witness of the church, which is more important than who occupies the White House or the halls of Congress.
I believe our public engagement should be informed by our faith in Christ. But, I also believe that we must be like Christ and seek to build relationships and not use “us versus them” judgmental language. My hope, and prayer, is that our political candidates will follow this example. My fear is we will continue to see more of the same until November.