On Social Issues, Santorum Can’t Help Himself

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CHRIS ZUPPA / Tampa Bay Times / ZUMAPRESS

Ministers surround and pray for Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at the Path of the Cross Evangelical Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 14, 2012.

When it comes to religion and morality, Rick Santorum is in a tricky position. He is clearly guided by his devout Catholic faith and most passionate about cultural values. And that explains a lot of his appeal among conservative voters. At the same time, Santorum knows that Mitt Romney makes a powerful case that Santorum’s social conservatism could cost the GOP droves of independent voters, and especially women, in November.
(PHOTOS: On the Trail with Rick Santorum)

In response, Santorum argues that he’s been unfairly pigeonholed. He tends to lay off the God stuff in his television interviews and televised primary-night speeches. But the man just can’t help himself. In Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Santorum was asked, once again, about his famous comment that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address promising that he would not take marching orders from the Vatican made him want to puke: “[H]e went far too far in separating out faith in the public square absolutely, and that’s what he said, he said people of faith have no role in public discourse. That is, of course, incorrect. That is not what the First Amendment says,” Santorum replied.

(MORE: The Under-Told Story of How Santorum Became a Crusader for the Religious Right)

But Kennedy didn’t say that, or anything particularly close to it–a point that people have been making for a while now, apparently to Santorum’s deaf ears. And Santorum is not going to overcome his reputation for religious zealotry if shows so little ability for self-awareness and engagement with his critics. In fact, the question simply sent him rushing back to politically dangerous terrain, per the New York Times:

But Mr. Santorum was off and rolling, and he was far more passionate on this topic than anything else that came up during his day. He jumped from there to the subject of President Obama’s recent order that employers, including religious-affiliated hospitals, colleges and other institutions, cover contraception in employees’ insurance policies.

“The left wants to try to twist this and turn this into something having to do with sex,” he declared. “No. It has everything to do with freedoms and religious beliefs and the government’s ability to impose their values on people of faith and denying people of faith access to the public square to make their arguments.”

Incidentally, it was Rush Limbaugh, not “the left,” who turned a law student’s testimony into a monologue about sex tapes and prostitution. More to the point, Santorum simply doesn’t seem this animated when talking about, say, his manufacturing tax credit. And that’s fine. He is who he is: a social-conservative crusader who believes in a society organized around theological values. But he’s not very good at pretending otherwise.

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