Santorum’s Martyr Complex

His camp says he is being attacked because of his faith. Forgive me, but that’s downright sinful.

Mitt Romney.
Are reporters going easy on Mitt Romney’s faith while harping on Rick Santorum’s religious views?

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Is Rick Santorum suffering for his faith? One of his advisers suggested to the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that he is, and that Mitt Romney is getting absolution. “Why is Mormonism off limits?” York quotes the adviser as asking. “We’re having to spend days answering questions about Rick’s faith, which he has been open about. Romney will turn on a dime when you talk about religion. We’re getting asked about specific tenets of Rick’s faith, and when Romney says, ‘I want to focus on the economy,’ [the press says,] ‘OK, we’ll focus on the economy.’ “

In this Lenten season we are called upon to be generous of spirit, so let’s start there. The Santorum campaign is under siege. Mitt Romney and his backers are dropping millions of dollars in ads on his head. He’s being called to account for everything he’s said for his entire career in an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for reasoned discussion. The press accounts of some of his recent comments, like his remark about Obama’s phony theology, have cast him in the worst possible light before letting him clarify. 

Now, this claim is nuts. Rick Santorum isn’t being asked about his faith. He’s being asked about statements that have come out of his own mouth about contraception, prenatal screening, and man’s dominion over earth. Even if we stipulate that the press is asking a disproportionate number of questions about these issues—instead of, say, his manufacturing plan or position on Syria—the questions I’ve heard haven’t been about papal infallibility or the Catechism. When the press want to ask gotcha questions about doctrinal matters, they ignore everything the candidate actually talks about and ask about evolution—as they regularly did with Mike Huckabee during the 2008 race. 

This is a dodge. And when you make a dodge of faith, you cheapen it—not the least because you make the plea seem like just another political move. It’s not the first time in this election season. While in South Carolina, Anita Perry said of her husband’s suffering campaign: “We are being brutalized by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is, I think … because of his faith.” Forgive me Father: hogwash. Perry had rough treatment not because of his faith but because he was a bad presidential candidate. It was particularly striking that Mrs. Perry used this shield because it was Robert Jeffress, one of her husband’s supporters, who threw the dirtiest religious barb in the campaign. He accused Romney of being a member of a “cult,” who should be shunned by Christians.

That’s what makes the Santorum adviser’s claim about Romney’s faith so preposterous. Again, in the spirit of Lent, we’ll assume the adviser wasn’t bringing up Romney’s faith in order to unsettle voters by reminding them of it. Mitt Romney has not tied his personal faith to his public policy positions the way Santorum has, yet he has been asked repeatedly about his faith during his presidential campaigns. It was such an issue in 2008 that he had to give a special speech on the topic to address the issue. 

It is true, as the Santorum adviser claims, that Romney pivots back to talking about the economy when asked about his religion. But that’s just campaign discipline. Romney switches back to the economy when asked what breakfast cereal he prefers. Santorum doesn’t pivot because he can’t: The questions he gets aren’t about his faith. They’re about things he says. Why? Because, in part, Santorum is appealing to evangelical voters. It’s hard to pivot away from answering for your own remarks by saying they’re not germane. 

That brings us to Satan. Rick Santorum’s comments about the Father of Lies from 2008 are in the news. Is it unfair to ask Santorum about these remarks? No. If Rick Santorum would like Mitt Romney to answer for remarks he made about abortion long ago, it’s fair for Santorum to have to answer about more recent remarks about Lucifer’s dominion over America. Maybe he was asked too many questions about Satan, but that’s a sin of excess, not a fixation on faith.

It’s dangerous to make too much of one unnamed adviser’s remarks, but this claim is not dissimilar from the wider complaint within the Santorum camp that he is being unfairly targeted because of his socially conservative views.  Rich Lowry of the National Journal defended this perspective in a recent column, arguing that the excessive scrutiny was due to the fact that Santorum “is a standing affront to the sensibilities and assumptions of the media and political elite.”

That is firmer ground. Calling Santorum a “standing affront” overstates the case, but the newsrooms on the coasts are not filled with people who share his worldview. But the idea of a left-wing conspiracy loses steam when you recognize how many conservatives are pointing out the shortcomings of Santorum’s campaign and his handling of social issues. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, who was a Santorum booster before it was cool, precisely identifies his excesses; John Podhoretz in the New York Post explains why Santorum’s moralism will be unattractive in a general election; and Peter Wehner in Commentary makes a similar case

With so many conservatives making astute political observations about Santorum and his socially conservative views, either the liberals have had a recruiting boon or there’s something to the scrutiny Santorum is getting that goes beyond ideology or religious bigotry. Santorum isn’t suffering for his faith. He’s being held accountable for what he says.