The Under-Told Story of How Santorum Became a Crusader for the Religious Right

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Justin Maxon for TIME

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his daughter greet supporters after speaking at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Lima, Ohio, March 3, 2012.

With his narrow defeat in Ohio on Tuesday night, Santorum missed his chance to send Mitt Romney reeling, and to become the arguable front-runner for the Republican nomination. But Santorum didn’t fare poorly enough to slink off and call it a campaign. The former Pennsylvania Senator has made clear that he’s staying in the race, especially as it heads into a batch of Southern states where Romney, who fares best among well-educated, high-income, non-evangelical Republicans—might find a lukewarm reception.

And as long as he sticks around, Santorum is sure to keep steering the political conversation towards the issues of religion, morality and sexual mores that have come to define his political identity, but which may be causing the Republican party severe damage with the moderate swing voters they’ll need to beat Barack Obama this fall. And don’t discount the possibility that Newt Gingrich drops out of the race, suddenly creating a head-to-head contest between Romney and Santorum (with Ron Paul nibbling at the margins) that could spell Rommey’s doom.

So how did Rick Santorum come to be such a fervent cultural warrior? The answer is interesting, and revealing of why he’s unlikely to give up his crusade anytime soon. In  this week’s issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers, I look at Santorum’s surprising transformation from a young partisan rabble-rouser to a man who suggests he is on nothing less than a divine mission to rescue American society from Satanic influences. “It’s sort of a process,” he said of his spiritual awakening in an interview on the eve of Super Tuesday. “I’m not a road to Damascus kind of guy.” Santorum acknowledges that he was nearly five years into his Washington career before he mentioned the word abortion in an official speech. “I had been one of those guys who was Catholic and pro-life, but… when that issue was being discussed, I’d just leave the room,” he told me.

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My story looks at three of the key influences that led Santorum to end, in his early-to-mid 30s, what he calls a period of “hibernation” from the strong Catholicism of his youth. One was Father Jerome Fasano, the Catholic priest at a Virginia church who, Santorum told me, “lit the fire intellectually” under him. Another was the 1996 death of Gabriel, a child born to his wife, Karen, just five months into her pregnancy, and who lived for only two hours outside the womb. That tragedy left Santorum briefly doubting his faith—“I looked up at God and said, ‘Hey, remember me? I’m the guy out there doing your stuff,” he recalled in a 2008 speech—before affirming his belief that he needed to crusade on behalf of the unborn.

The third and least understood influence was his father in law, Kenneth Garver, a pediatrician turned geneticist. Late in his career, Garver published several articles, and helped to organize at least one conference, warning that advances in genetic science raised the specter of Nazi-style eugenics, as more precise testing allowed for “selective breeding” to weed out the weak and disabled. “We’ve had endless hours of conversations on this subject,” Santorum told me, and the influence of those conversations are evident in Santorum’s positions and statements about everything from ObamaCare to stem cell research.

Santorum clearly faces an uphill road to the nomination. But his ideas, and the inspirations behind them, still matter. That’s because he still stands a chance of threatening Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination. And also because, whatever happens, he will have emerged as the new standard bearer for a re-energized religious right.  If Santorum wants to accept that role, in 2012 and beyond, his moment may not be about to end. It may be just beginning.

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