Santorum on “Mainline Protestanism”

Over the weekend a couple of Rick Santorum quotes came out concerning his views on Protestantism that are pretty interesting in isolation but become more interesting when you fit them together. The first, an audio file from 2008, has Santorum discussing “mainline Protestantism”, which he considers to be “gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.” In the second, made on Saturday, Santorum discusses Barack Obama’s piety and states that Obama believes in a “phony theology” that is “not a theology based on the Bible.”

Let’s take these quotes individually first, and then integrate them. The quote on Protestantism takes place in the context of a speech at Ave Maria College in which Santorum, a Catholic, spoke about America being founded on a “Judeo-Christian ethic”. Santorum is self-effacing about Catholicism’s own role, noting that “sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country.” The Judeo-Christian ethic, therefore, was defined by a “Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism” but “we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”

Santorum’s reading of American religious history is both factually and logically incorrect.  Granted, at the time of the American Revolution, the population was overwhelmingly affiliated with denominations that had opposed the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.  It is a leap to go from there to an identification of “mainline Protestantism”. Which Protestants? Virginian Anglicans did not consider Presbyterians or Baptists to be mainline Protestants – recent scholarship on this account shows that the Anglicans attempted to deny even basic toleration rights to dissenting sects until 1786. Furthermore, it was Thomas Jefferson, a non-Trinitarian Christian, who wrote the legislation securing those rights, which were subsequently embodied in the Constitution. Similar ambiguity could be found elsewhere. New England Congregationalists maintained a monopoly on religious observance and actively denied the legitimacy of dissenters well into the 19th century. Pennsylvania was populated by a plethora of German-derived sects such as Anabaptists and Quakers, neither of whom would fit the description of “mainline” by their Catholic(!), Lutheran and Presbyterian neighbors. And far from being an insignificant minority, Maryland was a majority-Catholic state, founded as a haven for English Catholics in the 17th century.

“Mainline Protestant” is therefore  a meaningless phrase in the context of the American founding, but Santorum compounds factual mistakes with illogic. There are three religious groups that he mentions – Protestants, Jews, and Catholics – and for the sake of simplicity let’s pretend that his categories are correct. Catholics he dismisses as an insignificant group, but he includes Jews in the “Judeo-Christian” ethic. Which Jews? There were no Jewish signers of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, and Jews were even fewer in number than Catholics in the wider population. Indeed, Santorum admits as much by framing the founding as an otherwise Protestant event. It would appear, then, that his inclusion of “Judeo-” is completely arbitrary.

Santorum thus shows himself to be confused intellectually. If his own understanding of early American Protestantism is so lacking in basic factual knowledge, if he cannot maintain a consistent standard when evaluating the contributions of various denominations, then how can his views on the American ethic be taken seriously? The “Judeo-Christian” ethic is exposed for what it truly is – the religious right’s intellectually fraudulent attempt to sound pluralistic without being so.

Santorum’s confusion is relevant for understanding his criticism of Obama. Santorum already struggles in his attempts to fit religious affiliations into categories. Now, here is the full quote from the Huffington Post:

Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.

When asked about the statement at a news conference later, Santorum said, “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.”

Santorum, whose own grasp of religion is so shaky that he cannot tell a Protestant from a Jew, now sees fit to declare Barack Obama, a member of the Congregationalist Church, as not Christian. His description of “phony theology” is, of course, entirely consistent with his earlier description of “mainline Protestant” denominations today, which includes Congregationalists, as not being part of Christianity. So Santorum’s speech in 2008 was not simply a one-off quote. It is an analysis of religion that he still holds to. Santorum continues:

“He is imposing his values on the Christian church. He can categorize those values anyway he wants. I’m not going to,” Santorum told reporters.

Here, Santorum shows ignorance of the great strides made within modern mainline Protestantism for social reform and instead lays all the responsibility at the feet of Barack Obama (and if the President is altering Christianity, isn’t that a good argument for strict separation of church and state?). Santorum’s argument doesn’t make sense. Through his reference to a single Christian church, he shows his contempt for the autonomy of Protestant faiths to do things like recognizing gay marriage without being excommunicated from Christendom. It also flies in the face of his statement before Obama’s election that the mainline Protestant denominations had moved themselves out of Christianity. Did mainline Protestants marginalize themselves or did they follow Barack Obama? Santorum doesn’t seem to be sure, but that doesn’t prevent him from making accusations of heresy.

There is, of course, another way to read this, and that is that Santorum was simply playing the Muslim card. One more quote:

At a campaign appearance in Florida last month, Santorum declined to correct a voter who called Obama, a Christian, an “avowed Muslim.”

Santorum told CNN after that incident, “I don’t feel it’s my obligation every time someone says something I don’t agree with to contradict them, and the president’s a big boy, he can defend himself.”

I don’t actually think this is the explanation. As I have demonstrated, excommunicating Obama is consistent with Santorum’s general world view. You don’t need the Muslim card to explain why Santorum doesn’t think Obama is a Christian. Santorum doesn’t think any Congregationalist, or for that matter Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist, is a Christian either. That is something every “mainline Protestant” who also identifies as “Republican” or “conservative” ought to take into account.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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3 Responses to Santorum on “Mainline Protestanism”

  1. Thanks for this, Dan. Most of the “Founding Fathers” (according to one website’s definition: http://www.adherents.com/gov/Founding_Fathers_Religion.html) were Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, but as you point out, also Quakers, Catholics, Calvinists and others that we wouldn’t now define as “mainline Protestants” – and I guess that’s part of the issue – that term was coined much later than the 18th century. Santorum’s views might reflect his very conservative approach to Catholicism. Some very conservative Catholics believe that only the Roman Catholic Church is the “true church” – most Catholic churches still won’t allow other Christians to take communion with them. It’s also true that churches generally are struggling in this country – see Diana Butler Bass’s article in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html. So Santorum is partly right but for the wrong reasons. I believe that churches are struggling because what they see in the media leads them to believe Christians are ultra-conservative, irrational biblical literalists who are more concerned with sexual mores than with justice for the oppressed, and more condemning than loving – like Santorum, in other words.

    • What people see in the media – not what churches see …

    • Exactly. The main thing that sticks out for me is that, at the time of the founding, none of the established churches within each colony would have recognized their local competitors as “mainline”. Indeed, as John Ragosta points out in the book which I reviewed, the colonial authorities routinely undermined the British Act of Toleration, which provided a legal definition of what we would now call mainline Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism was recognized by law in Britain proper, but it was contested in the colonies. Santorum is asserting the exact opposite of historical fact.

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