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Santorum's theology of the outrageous

The candidate's latest over-the-top remarks, this time on Obama and climate change, could come back to haunt him.

February 21, 2012
(Jay LaPrete/Getty Images )

Now that he's surging in the polls, Rick Santorum is finding that his eccentric and often outrageous views are being subjected to new scrutiny — so much so that the former Pennsylvania senator is becoming accustomed to walking back some of his more extreme utterances.

For example, confronted with a 2005 book in which he condemned feminists for a "misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect," Santorum insisted that he wasn't saying that a woman's place was in the home but only that he thought women's choices should be respected. When he said earlier this month on CNN that it could be compromising to put women in combat roles "because of other types of emotions that are involved," he again had to backtrack, insisting that he meant the emotions of men when they see a woman in harm's way.

Santorum's latest deconstruction of his own over-the-top remarks involves his suggestion to a tea party audience in Ohio that President Obama was animated by "some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible — a different theology." Stung that anyone would interpret those words as impugning Obama's Christian faith, Santorum has insisted that the "theology" of which he was complaining had to do with Obama's beliefs about the dangers of climate change.

Given the persistence of the political urban legend that Obama is a Muslim, Santorum should perhaps have realized that accusing the president of embracing an unbiblical "theology" would be interpreted as a nod to that canard. That said, the context of Santorum's remarks makes it clear that he was making a narrower, if still nutty, charge: that Obama is in the thrall of an extreme environmentalist "theology." He was assailing the president for wanting to drive down fuel consumption when he said: "It's not about your job. It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology."

So Santorum wasn't trying to unchurch Obama. But the use of the word "theology" was still revealing. In explaining his original remarks, Santorum said, "I was talking about the radical environmentalists," a group in which he apparently includes Obama. "This idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and being good stewards of the Earth, and I think that is a phony ideal." Here Santorum was alluding to a theological debate between Christians who, like him, emphasize God's command in Genesis to "subdue" the Earth, and others — so-called creation care Christians — who note that Genesis also exhorts humankind to "fill" or "replenish" the Earth. In effect, Santorum was caricaturing Obama as an extreme version of the latter school of thought: an Earth-worshiper.

The problem for Santorum is that shifting the focus to climate change reminds voters of his own view that man-made global warming is "bogus" and a "hoax." That may not matter with the 7 in 10 conservative Republicans who say there is no solid evidence of global warming. But polls suggest that Santorum's opinion would alienate many other voters, especially in a general election, who recognize it as the truly phony "theology."

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