This bothers me. It bothers me because Santorum's support base undoubtedly self-identifies as Christian, and because, to my mind at least, Santorum comes closest of the Republican candidates to overtly defying the fundamental spirit of Christian ethics. And, more eggregiously, he does so in the name of Christianity.
As I've argued before, Santorum deliberately seeks in his stump speeches to establish an us/them ideology, one that pits the "Christian" in-group against an out-group encompassing, in particular, sexual minorities. He represents the latter's pursuit of social equality as an attack on Christianity, one against which Christians should rally. And he, of course, is the champion of the chosen group, the one around whom the rallying should occur.
Since I've looked closely at these rhetorical moves before, I won't do so again here. The point I want to make here is that, in pursuing this politics of division, Santorum abandons in the most overt possible way any real concern for living out the love ethic of Christianity. He abondons it in favor of using Christianity as a group-category for establishing a form of what, in Is God a Delusion?, I call "religionism." Here's how I summarized this idea in the last chapter of that book:
When one racial group brutally oppresses another, we blame racism, not race. When people of different nationalities go to war out of misplaced pride, we blame nationalism, not nationality. When rival ethnic groups practice "ethnic cleansing," we blame ethnocentrism, not ethnicity.In Is God a Delusion?, my purpose for bringing up this distinction was to challenge the New Atheist argument that religion is pernicious because of its propensity to motivate intergroup hostility and violence. My claim was that the source of the problem lies not with religion as such but with divisive ideology--and such divisive ideology can but needn't be built around distinctive human systems of religious belief and practice.
Likewise, I would suggest that what we should blame for all the violence that has been done in the name of God is not religion but what might be dubbed religionism. Behind each of these "isms" is a common human tendency: the drive to divide humanity into in-groups and out-groups, to define oneself in terms of group membership, and to define one's group against rivals.
Of course, the line between religion and religionism is blurrier than the line between race and racism, insofar as both religion and religionism involve beliefs and practices. I may say more about this in a later blog post. For now, however, my point is this: Santorum's invocation of Christianity in his stump speeches has the clear markings of religionism. It is about dividing people, defining battle lines, and mobilizing one group by placing it in opposition to another.
And such divisive ideology is the very antithesis, I would argue, of the love ethic that Jesus taught and modeled. In the name of standing up for "biblical" teachings about homosexuality, it seems to me that Santorrum has ignored what lies at the very heart of living out the Christian ethical life.
A claim like that requires some account of what I take to be at the heart of the Christian ethical life. Obviously this is something I can't do full justice to in a short blog post (maybe I'll devote more attention to it in later posts). But the essence of the Christian approach to ethical life is, I think, beautifully characterized by Simone Weil in the quotation that appears at the header of this blog. It's about a lived connection to the transcenden that breaks down distinctions and divisions among each of us "here below." It's about seeing the divine in terms of agapic love, a love that does not wait on worth, that does not distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy...and then deliberately pursuing connection with the divine by loving the creation in this same extravagant way.
When I hear critics of religion talk about the deep moral failings of Christianity or other faiths, it is clear to me that while they are putting their fingers on real problems, they are also missing something fundamental (not only in Christianity, but in other religious traditions that teach very similar things). But it is also clear to me that it is the very public claims and arguments of people like Santorum that make it so easy to miss this fundamental something. When the heart of Christian ethics is missed by those who most visibly thump their chests as exemplars of the faith, who can blame outsiders for missing it too?
Santorum's propensity to do this, however, is not the main thing that bothers me. Santorum, after all, is a politician. And divisive ideologies have been invoked by politicians throughout history. What bothers me the most is that many of those who most visibly wear the "Christian" label in our society are so apparently sucked in by such invocations of faith in the service of partisan politics. It's not just that the spirit of partisan divisiveness in Christian guise is mistaken for the introduction of Christian values into political life. More disturbingly, that spirit seems to have succeeded, again and again, at introducing partisan divisiveness into Christian life.