Secular-baiting has become something of an art form in high GOP circles ever since Newt Gingrich began his pioneering explorations of the genre back in the 1990s.
A milestone in the evolution of this rhetoric occurred in 2007 when Mitt Romney likened Secularism to radical Jihadism in a memorable speech.
Those were impressive accomplishments, for sure. But let me say that no one, but no one, can demonize, Talibanize, or Stalinize Secularism like Rick Santorum. On occasion he has done so, I would admit, with a fair degree of intellectual seriousness, as in this 2010 speech. Though for the most part his pronouncements on the subject amount to rank and preposterous name-calling.
Back in 2003 he lamented: “I want to remind people of the societies that have been secular in nature. Starting with the French Revolution, moving onto the fascists, and the Nazis and the communists and the Baathists, all of those purely secularists hated religion, tried to crush religion.”
Recently he claimed the Obama administration believes that “secular values should be imposed on people of faith.” “Don’t you see,” Santorum sighed, “how they see you? How they look down their noses at the average Americans. These elitist snobs!”
Needless to say, Santorum’s aversion to separation of Church and State has led him to repeatedly anathemize John F. Kennedy. For it was the nation’s first Catholic president who famously called in 1961 for separation. Looking back, Santorum was “frankly appalled” by Kennedy’s “radical” stance.
Fresh off his three victories last week, Santorum upped the ante: “the intolerance of the secular ideology. It is a religion unto itself. It is just not a biblical based religion. And it is the most intolerant just like we saw in the days of the atheists in the Soviet Union. . .and they fear dissent why? Because the dissent comes from folks who use reason, common sense, and divine revelation and they want no part of any of those things.”
So let’s review, shall we? Secularism is defined by Santorum variously as a religion, intolerant of religion, atheist, leftist, liberal, intolerant of dissent, Gallic, Nazi, Communist, elitist and, of course, the official ideology of the Obama administration. Oddly, in a recent debate we found candidate Santorum praising “secular” Pakistan over a theocratic Iran, but by now the reader may realize that when it comes to public discussions of Secularism logical coherence is expressly discouraged.
The truth is that for decades terms like “secular,” “secular humanist,” “atheist,” and “liberal,” have been used by the Right as if all were synonyms of one another and synonyms of every form of depravity known to the species. Santorum is not the first conservative Christian public figure to draw these loose associations, though he is presently the most visible.
This raises the question of why the practice of disparaging secularism has continued for so long. This is a complex prompt, but I want to suggest one quick answer here. The highfalutin rhetorical assaults on secularism permit culture warriors to avoid the real problem of how to let religion function in a public square teeming with diverse and often antagonistic religious actors.
It is easy, lucrative, and even pleasurable, to pulverize sinister Secularism. It rallies the base, secures contributions, and helps conservative voters focus on demonic (i.e., liberal, Democratic) forces possessing our political system. It is much harder, however, to explain how citizens who base their civic thinking on Santorum’s “divine revelation” could possibly live in peace when those revelations might lead them to completely different policy prescriptions. Anti-secular rhetoric, at its core, is a demagogic evasion.
Yet Santorum and others will keep baiting secularism, and evading difficult issues, until someone stops them. As I think through the future of an admittedly troubled secular movement, I note that Santorum’s co-religionists often have a far better appreciation of the value of the secular than he does.
Writing in the magazine America, the Jesuit Raymond Schroth reflects on the vast discrepancy between Santorum’s views on Kennedy and his own: “I don’t know where Santorum was in 1960, but he was two years old. I was surrounded by Jesuit scholastics in philosophy studies. We knew the speech had been written with the advice of Catholic theologians and that Kennedy knew the proper role of conscience, as well as religion, in making public decisions.”
It may be lost upon candidate Santorum, but religious minorities in America such as Catholics often have pragmatic reasons for being wary of permitting religion to play too large a role in public life. This truism is often lost upon anti-theist movement secularists as well, which is unfortunate because it is precisely by reaching out to religious individuals that the secular movement can re-energize itself.