Why is Santorum Doing Better with Evangelicals than Catholics?

Rick Santorum has been cleaning up in the Bible Belt. Although a practicing Catholic, he has recently won primaries in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama, not exactly Papist strongholds. He has also done well in the rural areas of rustbelt states, where evangelicals predominate. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to be clicking with Catholics. Joan Walsh at Salon comments that he isn’t even getting much support from his own Catholic High School in Illinois, which he avoids in favor of more evangelically friendly venues. Exit polls bear out this strange alignment of forces. The Ohio polls, for example, show him beating Romney among white evangelicals by 17 percentage points and losing among Catholics by 13 per cent.

The fact that people seem to have little trouble identifying outside of their denomination is no great surprise, of course, in our present age. Traditional sectarianism in the form of Protestant-Catholic hostility is mostly a thing of the past. Individuals who mix their religion and politics are much more likely to care about issues like abortion or same-sex marriage than they are about denominational allegiance, and to vote accordingly. 

So what is it about Rick Santorum that is more likely to attract evangelical voters and turn off Catholic ones? On the surface Santorum’s conservativism actually would seem to hold appeal for both constituencies (let’s remember that in the Republican primaries most evangelicals and Catholics lean conservative). As something of a hybrid Christian in practice, he combines elements of both Catholicism and Protestantism: he couples an old school, authoritarian  Catholicism with a populist right-wing evangelicalism. And his conservative position on social issues is popular in both camps.

But one of Santorum’s key characteristics is that he seems to be angry about something. He is a man of intense religiosity who is antagonistic towards the ethos of America as it now stands and is sickened by the idea of separation of church and state. This does not sit well with many Catholics, even conservative ones, who in the distant past often considered themselves outsiders, but in the years since John F. Kennedy’s presidency have mostly made peace with America and its culture. They simply do not bear the grudge against America today that Santorum exhibits on a daily basis. Not only this, many Catholics undoubtably resent Santorum’s holier-than-thou brand of Catholicism. He follows a strict form of the Catholic religion that emphasizes purity and obedience, and he identifies with two cult-like organizations within the Church known for their secrecy and extreme views, Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. In general, Santorum has trouble hiding his disdain for those fellow Catholics who have made compromises with the surrounding culture.

Santorum’s on-your-sleeve religiosity, on the other hand, is a point of attraction for evangelicals. Regarding themselves as today’s “out” group, they share Santorum’s sense of resentment, and perceive the world in  terms of persecution and exclusion from the  public square. In their eyes and Santorum’s, today’s modern culture is profoundly rotten, the product of an aggressive secular worldview. In spite of his Catholic training, Santorum talks their language and walks their walk. As a former member of a Bible study group in Congress, he quotes Scripture liberally. He supports home-schooling, parental rights, intelligent design, and Christian history, all key points among evangelicals. And he practices and preaches a type of culture war they find congenial.

What conservative evangelicals see in Santorum is someone who would be willing, if he were able, to impose a different level of faith in America and to see it applied in political ways. This is something most of America’s Catholics would not presume to do.

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