Rick Santorum and the Language of Idolatry

Most days, I believe in the power of politics and the value of Christians participating in the political process to effect positive change that the churches or other religiously affiliated groups have been unable or unwilling to provide.

An example of this is the Affordable Care Act, i.e. Obamacare. When the law is fully in effect in 2014, it will have greatly expanded the ability of the nation’s poor and middle class to access life-saving health care. While I agree with Barron Jones that simply voting for whichever candidate promises to keep such welfare programs (broad definition of the term) in place does not perhaps allow me to say I’ve done much for “the least of these,” I firmly believe that Barack Obama, when he meets Jesus face to face, will be told, “Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. … Come, celebrate with me.”

Because by pushing and pushing and pushing for health-care reform, even though by the end of the ugly process, the bill was – and remains – a political liability, Obama did something real and effective for the needy in our country, something very few other Christians were doing – or even trying to do.

That’s when Christians engaging in politics works well, I feel.

When it works badly, I find myself sympathizing with Anabaptists and others who feel the process undermines and contradicts whatever good happens to result from it, and, worse, that it corrupts the faith and pushes Christians into making an idol of human effort and power.

That’s certainly how I usually feel after hearing Rick Santorum speak.

I don’t get into politics much here, and I don’t plan to start. But it is an election year, and I do follow politics pretty closely, so to the extent that the issues I normally discuss on the blog overlap with the news cycle of the 2012 elections, you might see a few more posts than usual. I apologize if that’s not your cup of tea.

Santorum is a conservative Catholic, who advocates a host of religiously based rules that would affect those who don’t share his religious convictions. That kind of moral legislation seems wrong-headed to me, as well as ineffective. What ruler has ever been effective converting an unwilling population to his or her moral agenda? That’s the key difference to me: Obama and Santorum are both Christians, and their faith informs their political leanings and priorities, but Obama’s convictions lead him to help others in need, Santorum’s lead him to a place of condemnation and judgment. They couldn’t end up in more different places despite starting in roughly the same place theologically.

Perhaps the strongest example of why Santorum makes me want to back away from the notion of Christians being involved in politics is that he would disagree with the last couple of sentences I just wrote.

On Sunday, Santorum said, “I’ve repeatedly said I don’t question the president’s faith. I’ve repeatedly said I believe the president’s Christian.”

Perhaps he has. He’s also repeatedly said he doesn’t believe it, or at least made it sound that way, such as in 2008, when responding to a question about Obama’s church and its “non-literal” approach to Bible interpretation, hardly a unique or even minority viewpoint among Christians:

[I]s there such thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer is, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian. That’s sort of how I look at it.

When you go so far afield of that and take what is a salvation story and turn it into a liberation theology story, which is done in the Catholic world as well as in the evangelical world, you have abandoned Christendom, in my opinion. And you don’t have a right to claim it.

Then, last month, Santorum said this about Obama’s agenda: “It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible – a different theology

This kind of language is dispiriting, and of course it’s said used more bluntly by rank-and-file conservative Christians, who openly question Obama’s faith, believing him to be a closet, or even open, atheist or Muslim or something else entirely. On the one hand, the faith of the president shouldn’t matter. On the other, we shouldn’t be questioning the faith of a brother in Christ based solely on our disagreement with his environmental and social beliefs.

Yet that’s what Santorum does, and I’d argue he’s doing it even more subtly.

A lot of people noticed his bizarre argument that Obama was a “snob” for wanting to expand opportunities for higher education (wouldn’t a snob be trying to restrict those opportunities?).

President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor. That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

In politics, people say a candidate is using a “dog whistle” when he or she speaks in coded language that might not be entirely obvious to most listeners but perks up the ears of a certain segment of the audience. I think Santorum is using a dog whistle here.

“He wants to remake you in his image.”

Where else do you hear that kind of language?

  • Gen. 1:27 – “So God created man in his image.”

In fact, do a search for the word “image” in the Bible, and what verses come up?

  • Revelation 13:15 – “He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.”
  • Habakkuk 2:18 – “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? What good is an idol carved by man, or a cast image that deceives you?”
  • Daniel 3:3 – “So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.”

It goes on. Making something in “his image” is the language of idolatry. God made humanity in God’s image; humanity then made gods into ours.

I don’t know whether Santorum was being so cynical as to intentionally code his speech in such a way that it tied Obama with the well-worn language of idolatry. But it’s clear Santorum is well steeped in that kind of religious rhetoric; if he wasn’t cynically using that phrase, the use of such language on an ostensibly non-religious topic speaks volumes about his true beliefs on the matter. When confronted with Obama’s fairly run-of-the-mill liberal theology – that the Bible is not intended to be a literal historical document, that God’s priorities involve first and foremost caring for the poor and oppressed, that care for the earth is a primary concern for God and should be likewise for humanity – Santorum responds with the language of idolatry.

It’s this kind of rhetorical warfare – one Christian questioning the faith of another and even obliquely calling him an idolator, or an idol himself – that raises legitimate questions about whether Christians should get involved in the messy, dirty game of politics. Some days, those questions carry a lot more weight.

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