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Is candidate Rick Santorum an "evangelist"?

The first word that a journalist needs to think of when writing about former Sen. Rick Santorum is "conservative" and the second is "Catholic." Yes, I am well aware that in 2005 Time magazine named him one of America's 25 most influential evangelicals, which simply makes no sense at all in terms of doctrine and heritage. Ah, but who cares about religion when you can use "evangelical" as a political label? Thus, Time noted that Santorum "may be a Catholic, but he's the darling of Protestant Evangelicals." Conservative, daily Mass Catholics tend to think highly of him, too, but nevermind.

Readers may also recall that former New York Times editor Bill Keller memorably twisted the senator's faith, as well, in his essay that sort of compared traditional believers with those who embrace space aliens. The correction dutifully noted: "The essay also erroneously includes Rick Santorum among politicians affiliated with evangelical Christianity. Mr. Santorum is Catholic."

Cable television watchers may have noticed that Santorum continues to seek the GOP presidential nomination and, this time of year, that means courting Iowa evangelicals. Alas, there appear to be no Catholics in Iowa.

'Tis the pre-primary season. Thus, the DC bureau of the McClatchy Newspapers recently produced this news feature about the candidate, with the headline, "Rick Santorum's presidential ambition is rooted in his faith."

One would assume that the words "his faith" in that headline refer to the faith that is practiced by Santorum.

The story opens like this:

WASHINGTON -- For former Sen. Rick Santorum, it's always been about faith.

Deep religious faith fuels Santorum's conservative politics. It's what propelled him into becoming one of Congress' leading opponents of abortion, same-sex marriage and wrongdoing by fellow lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation. Faith is the key ingredient that also powers Santorum's long-shot drive for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The story accurately notes that Santorum continues to stress moral and cultural issues in a year in which most Americans are worried about the economy. However, social issues remain crucial in GOP primary season (ask Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney) and Santorum soldiers on.

The top of the report is dominated by politics and then, at last, 10 paragraphs or so down, readers are returned to the main subject:

A devout Catholic and father of seven children, Santorum was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 at age 32. He was a member of the so-called "Gang of Seven" House GOP freshmen who rankled House leadership in both parties by highlighting check-writing abuses by their fellow lawmakers at the now-defunct House bank. ...

In the Senate, Santorum became known for his social conservatism. ... Santorum's stances earned him a solid following among religious conservatives and a spot on Time magazine's 25 most influential evangelists list in 2005. It also earned him the enmity of many Democrats, women's groups, abortion rights advocates and gay rights supporters, who disliked what they considered Santorum's holier-than-thou attitude.

The 25 most influential WHAT?

Oh my, was that word "evangelists?" Would that be "evangelists" as in Christian men and women who evangelize nonbelievers, often in large public rallies?

So the conservative Catholic is an "evangelist" as well as, in political terms, an "evangelical." One cannot help but flash back to 2004 and that edgy Books & Culture essay by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame, the piece entitled "Religiously Ignorant Journalists: In search of Episcopals and evangelists."

All together now, let's read aloud this ever memorable passage near the top:

As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university's PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

"Evangelicals" is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as "evangelists" -- as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau -- or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Hey, aren't all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them -- scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce "evangelicals" at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at "evangelics" and "evangelicalists" they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as "them."

So, to the McClatchy bureau, we must say, "Correction please."

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