Faith reduced to caricature
WHILE THE Roman Catholic Church has long been regarded as a conservative institution, Catholics have been a progressive force in America. Yet a once-marginal version of extremely conservative Catholicism has lately come into its own by linking up with far right-wing evangelical Protestantism, creating a powerful new political movement. Right-wing Catholics are in the thick of the culture war — and the Republican presidential campaign.
Recently, Rick Santorum received the backing of catholicvote.org, a conservative Catholic lobbying group. This was not surprising, for Santorum has emphasized his staunchly conservative Catholicism. More noteworthy was when, last week, Mitt Romney drew the endorsement of five prominent Catholic conservatives - all former US ambassadors to the Vatican - who shunned fellow Catholics Santorum and Newt Gingrich. With that, Romney’s credentials were reinforced as a reliable defender of, as the ambassadors put it, “the importance of family and traditional values in American life.” That a Catholic endorsement could possibly help the candidate overcome anti-Mormon prejudice of Christian fundamentalists suggests how the landscape of bigotry has changed.
The “culture war” (an idea originating in the German Protestant kulturkampf against Catholics in the late 19th century) has redefined itself, as Rick Santorum shows better than anyone. In a speech delivered in Houston in September 2010, Santorum marked the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s epochal speech to Protestant ministers in the same place by launching a withering attack on - of all things - Kennedy’s speech. Instead of seeing JFK’s declaration as a major defusing of the old Catholic-Protestant animosity, Santorum accused Kennedy of laying “the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left.” Kennedy supposedly did this by sealing “off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non-rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.” Kennedy “chose to expel faith” from American politics.