Whatever Rick Santorum’s fate may be in the presidential sweepstakes, it’s obvious that he has risen to prominence by promoting a theology that resonates with the far right. Guided by its assumptions, Santorum has offered a religious critique of mainstream secular culture. He directs his wrath at government (a form of idolatry), public schools (ungodly substitutes for home schooling), universities (doctrination mills), environmentalism (a pagan theology), climate change theory (junk science), and evolution (a vector for atheism). His attack on contemporary civilization is about as sweeping as one can find.
Santorum’s righteous critique follows closely that of the Religious Right. But in line with other recent examples of religion-based discourse, it goes well beyond traditional moral concerns. As Joshua Holland of Alternet observes, the culture war increasingly has been seeping into unfamiliar places. No longer is cultural rhetoric limited to hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage, and sex. Now, under Tea Party auspices, it extends to the cooler topics of government, economy, education, and environment.
What then is the “theology” that underlies Santorum’s list of grievances? And what are the assumptions that fuel it? To get a better understanding of it, one needs to turn back a few decades to the theological progenitors of today’s Christian Right, in particular Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was the preacher who brought conservative evangelicals up to speed on the issue of abortion in the 1970’s and made them see it as a serious offense. He called on them to take matters into their own hands and inspired a generation of activists with names like Falwell, Robertson, and Colson. But perhaps most important, Schaeffer asked his followers to go beyond individual issues like abortion, and to see them as symptoms of a much larger problem. That problem was secular civilization itself and the thinking that supported it. According to him, an alien secularist worldview, encompassing everything from worship of the state to Darwinist evolution, had overshadowed the legacy of Christianity to the point where it posed a threat to its very existence.
Schaeffer’s response, borrowed from earlier conservative theologians, was to counter the alleged modernist worldview with a Christian one based on the Bible and equipped with its own distinctive idea of the truth. It was a worldview that saw the biblical God as sovereign over every aspect of life. Secular government, law, knowledge, and ethics was anathema to its God-centered principles. Personal autonomy and independence was tantamount to rebellion against God. Schaeffer called the ideology “Christian worldview.” Today’s Religious Right bases its rhetoric, agenda, and posture toward the world on this Christian worldview, and spends great amounts of energy indoctrinating its followers in it.
Rick Santorum, a life-long Catholic, does not share the evangelical background of theologians like Schaeffer. But he, like many other conservative Catholics (including Richard John Neuhaus and the current Pope), has bought into the idea of an all-encompassing secular worldview that threatens Christianity. He sees it as a secularist mindset that promotes an “extreme” individualism and undermines contemporary civilization. Separation of church and state is one of the concepts it allegedly uses to debase Christianity, a reason why it upsets Santorum’s stomach.
Thus when Santorum refers to the non-biblical “theology” of people like President Obama, he is echoing the strident sentiments of religious rightists who wish to replace the false worldview (theology) of our current age with a correct, Christian one. Because of its aggressive agenda in the secular sphere, it is time for political observers to familiarize themselves with this Christian worldview and understand the severe limits it would impose on the rights and freedoms of the rest of us.