By Luke Brinker
A group of conservative evangelicals meeting near Houston lent its support to Rick Santorum on Saturday, one week before the crucial South Carolina primary.
The religious conservatives convened in an effort to coalesce behind an alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, whose past social moderation makes him a target of suspicion among many social conservatives. Observers expected the group to endorse either Santorum or Newt Gingrich. The evangelicals’ backing for Santorum means the former Pennsylvania senator will have a concerted Christian right campaign on his behalf, as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told the South Carolina newspaper The State.
Historians of American religion cannot help but note the significance of a conservative Protestant group supporting a Roman Catholic presidential candidate. Throughout the nation’s history, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants were the greatest foes of the Catholic Church, which some influential evangelicals still refer to as “the whore of Babylon.” When John F. Kennedy pledged not to allow his Catholicism to interfere with his presidential duties, he was speaking before Protestant clergy at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Many scholars point to the 1979 founding of the Moral Majority as pivotal in the development of the conservative Catholic-evangelical/fundamentalist alliance. Led by Rev. Jerry Falwell, the organization rallied religious conservatives behind the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan and signified the ascendancy of the Religious Right as a formidable political force. But alliances of convenience between right-wing Catholics and Protestants pre-dated the Moral Majority. In his 1964 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter discussed this phenomenon in the context of the sects’ rabid anti-Communism:
Indeed, one of the most striking developments of our time has been the emergence of a kind of union, or at least a capacity for cooperation, between Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists, who share a common puritanism and a common mindless militancy on what they imagine to be political issues, which unite them in opposition to what they repetitively call Godless Communism. Many Catholics seem to have overcome the natural reluctance one might expect them to have to join hands with the very type of bigoted Protestant who scorned their ancestors. It seems a melancholy irony that a union which the common bonds of Christian fraternity could not achieve has been forged by the ecumenicism of hatred. During the McCarthy era, the senator from Wisconsin had wide backing both from right-wing Protestant groups and from many Catholics …
What unites Santorum and his right-wing Protestant backers are, above all, their common hatreds – toward Enlightenment values of reason and science, toward the feminist movement, toward gay rights, and toward the notion of a secular republic. Consider Santorum’s comparisons of homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, his likening of same-sex marriage to polygamy, and his contention that cultural liberalism caused Catholic priests to rape children. Consider his new supporter Tony Perkins and his Family Research Council (FRC). As a political aide in Louisiana, Perkins paid Ku Klux Klansman David Duke $3,000 for access to his mailing list. The Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed FRC a hate group, noting, for example, its egregious homophobia. Via Talking Points Memo:
The main offender in the eyes of the SPLC is Peter Sprigg, the FRC’s senior researcher and vocal opponent of the gay rights movement. In May, Sprigg told me that an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would lead to more American servicemen receiving unwelcome same-sex fellatio in their sleep, part of a long line of reasoning from Sprigg suggesting that gay men are more likely to be sex offenders than anyone else.
The SPLC pointed to several other Sprigg comments when deciding to list the FRC as a hate group.
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Morals, Morals, Morals! Conservatives Gather For Values Voter Summit]
For instance, this:
[I]n March 2008, Sprigg, responding to a question about uniting gay partners during the immigration process, said: “I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them.” He later apologized, but then went on, last February, to tell MSNBC host Chris Matthews, “I think there would be a place for criminal sanctions on homosexual behavior.” “So we should outlaw gay behavior?” Matthews asked. “Yes,” Sprigg replied.
That such a cast of characters would endorse Santorum is not surprising.
Many commentators will hail Santorum’s evangelical support as a sign of inter-faith progress. (Liberal intellectual Noah Feldman, for instance, has already done so.) Whether or not one accepts Santorum’s far-right views, they will argue, surely we can all applaud the fact that a man’s Catholicism is no longer a barrier to his receiving fundamentalist Protestant support. But the fundamentalist Catholic-Protestant alliance is neither historically unprecedented nor something to cheer. The ecumenicism of hatred represents “progress” only for a bigoted few.