Book Review

The Public Eye Magazine - Winter 2005

Conservatism and the Common Good

Rick Santorum

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader

Forget the red state/blue state split. The real divide, articulated by ultraconservative Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, is over human nature.

"The truth is that human beings are not born naturally inclined to do the right thing," he writes. "A philosopher once said that the only empirically provable philosophical doctrine is that of original sin: I know it and you know it, and as a father of six, I know none of us is born without it."

Ignore, for now, the unnamed thinker. Instead, let Santorum walk you through his world, a place where human beings are forever battling against temptation and transgression.

Santorum's lengthy but readable tract is a for-the-masses guide to contemporary Christian conservatism. An obvious rebuttal to Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 bestseller, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, he focuses on multiple themes: the role of families as arbiters of "social capital;" the centrality of religion in civic life; and the ways popular culture shapes both identity and ideology. Abortion and LGBT rights are, of course, slammed and public education is derided. Needless to say, liberalism is portrayed as one-hair shy of Satanism.

Despite his rhetoric, Santorum comes across as earnest—he seems to truly believe what he writes—as he argues the benefits of a rigid, hierarchical domestic tableau. Much of his doctrine comes from Catholicism's theory of subsidiarity, the principle that all social challenges should be addressed at the level of the smallest possible social unit, the family.

An unabashed supporter of heterosexual marriage, he echoes Irving Kristol's 1970s dictum that families are the primary arena for lessons in social functioning, the place where boys learn to be men and girls learn to honor and obey their fathers, brothers and husbands. But that's not all. Santorum is also a booster of Covenant Marriage. "Divorce is simply far too easy to get in this country," he writes. "States should put in braking mechanisms for couples who have children under the age of 18. This means a mandatory waiting period and mandatory counseling before a divorce is granted." His arguments sound rational— until you question who will counsel whom and look at real world reasons for marital dissolution, from spousal battering to marital rape to blatant incompatibility.

What it boils down to is this: According to Santorum, marriage is not for adult pleasure; it is for child-bearing and childrearing. Consequently, he believes that the dissatisfaction of grown-ups is of little consequence. At the center of his beliefs is the rejection of what he calls individualism. Time and again he rails at self-centered adults who give little credence to community needs or the collective good. Here, too, it's a question of perspective. As he sees it, abortion epitomizes society's capitulation to individuality by allowing women to define morality for themselves. The same, he continues, is true of sexuality.

"Laws have meaning and therefore, laws teach. When something is legal it has the presumption that it is moral and right. If the sexual unions of men with men and women with women have equal dignity with the union of men and women, then marriage cannot be understood as having anything intrinsically to do with children. Society will teach the next generation that marriage is a self-centered endeavor about adult satisfaction, not children's well being… Children have a right to a faithfully married mother and father."

Santorum blames popular culture and the public schools for promoting this rampant individualism and for pushing the idea that thoughtful people can make good, moral choices from an array of options; to hear him tell it, feminists and queers run everything and promote free love at every turn. Sex and the City (he calls it Sex in the City) and Friends come in for particular criticism because they depict unmarried partners having sex for pleasure, not procreation. "Teen pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, addictions to pornography and its debasing message about women and sex, high school drop-outs, depression and suicide: all come in whole or in part from increased sexual activity," he writes.

For Santorum, cause and effect are simple and there is no need for references, attribution, or proof to buttress his statements. We should just take his word—he is, after all, a U.S. Senator. Indeed, he presents good and bad in black-and-white, easy to define, terms: Good culture "tells us about life as it really is— it tells the truth."

Let's return to Sex and the City and Friends… Apparently, Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte, to say nothing of Joey, Phoebe, Rachel, Chandler, Monica,, live lives so distinct from Santorum's as to be unfathomable; they are thereby "false," beyond the pale. And good culture? One need look no further, he argues, than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a film that "tells the truth, no matter how discomforting."

Got that?

Just in case you missed the point, in Santorum-ville, truth is never relative; like original sin, it is the same for everyone. In this schema religion is always a social good, to be lauded by government and supported by public policy. The agenda is clear: Intelligent design should be taught in public schools; tax dollars should pay for parochial education under cover of school choice; prayer should be returned to the classroom; and respect for authority should be ironclad. While corporal punishment is not mentioned, it is a short leap from Santorum's theories about respect for elders, no matter their behavior. Predictably, pedophilia is ignored.

In the end, Santorum's straightforward assessment of domestic policies is an instructive look at the Christian right. Although his worldview will stun those unfamiliar with religious conservatism, progressives will likely be equally surprised by his advocacy of workplace flexibility and telecommuting; returning the right to vote to felons after five arrest-free years; using incarceration to teach parenting skills to both male and female detainees; and expanding down-payment assistance programs to enable low and moderate income adults to purchase homes.

Santorum's It Takes a Family raises important questions for progressives and those on the faithbased left. How we approach people who believe that humans are intrinsically evil remains to be seen. But in a country in which 40 percent of the population says they are born-again, we can no longer afford to give these concerns short shrift.

Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based teacher, writer and activist. She is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin's Press, 2001).

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