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Someone's confused about Santorum

An editor, whose religion I don't know, sent this Associated Press story along with the note, "Maybe I'm too sensitive to these things, but this strikes me as kind of a vile headline if you think about it--not that some people mistake him for a Protestant, but the implication is that they wouldn't support him if they knew he was Catholic." What's the headline?

Santorum benefits from mistaken religious identity

Here's the lede:

Rick Santorum's political good fortune in the Republican presidential primaries has come about in large part because of his appeal to evangelicals. A Roman Catholic, he is a beneficiary of more than two decades of cooperation between conservative Protestants and Catholics who set aside theological differences for the common cause of the culture war.

Doctrine - and anti-Catholic bias - once split Protestants and Catholics so bitterly that many evangelical leaders worked to defeat John F. Kennedy because of his religion. When Kennedy sought to confront suspicion about his Catholicism, he made his now-famous faith speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of evangelical Protestants in Texas. Five decades later, when some prominent evangelical leaders gathered at a Texas ranch to discuss backing a 2012 GOP candidate, Santorum was their choice.

The headline and the lede are just weird, aren't they? First off, the people who seem particularly confused about Rick Santorum's religion are the media, right? In one breath, they call him an evangelical, in another, they deride him for (for instance) wearing his Catholic faith on his sleeve.

In August Bill Keller, then executive editor of the New York Times, was telling us that Rick Santorum is part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity." Only a few months later, he tweets:

@nytkeller A friend poses this GOP debate question: Wasn't yesterday Ash Wednesday? Aren't Santorum and Gingrich devout Catholics?

When a couple of reporters pointed out that it's not a holy day of obligation for Catholics and that you're not obliged to wear your ashes all day, he responded:

@nytkeller No, it's not an obligation. But these guys wear their faith on their sleeves. Why not on their foreheads?

Which is it, Bill? Fervid subset of evangelical Christianity or a Catholic who wears his faith on his sleeve? By the way, it's just been a banner week in religious bigotry at the New York Times. There was the Charles Blow nonsense (no, not about sex or his eliminationist rhetoric about conservatives but, rather, his mockery of Mormon garments. He did apologize for the mockery.). And then there's this Dick Cavett nonsense that begins with some bigoted discussions of Catholic teaching and Rick Santorum before speaking utter nonsense about homeschooling, trotting out just about every ill-informed prejudice out there.

OK, but back to the point of this Associated Press piece. He "benefits" from "mistaken" religious identity. What's the proof? Well, there is none. So I guess that settles that. Actually, the proof is just a mention of a Christian Post article headlined "Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical." It is more like a blog post and I kid you not that three of the five folks "you" thought were evangelical are Justice Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich and Bobby Jindal. I don't even think that Bill Keller thought any of these folks was evangelical. The justification for thinking Santorum was evangelical? A link to that Time story saying he was.

The headline oversells a piece that should have been about how Santorum appeals to evangelicals. But the story struggles, too. I'm not even sure I think the "good fortune" language is right. Fortune is "chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs." Not even a majority of evangelicals are behind Santorum (it still being a four-way race) but is whatever large portion of them he holds due to chance or luck? That Roman Catholics and Protestants have become cobelligerents on some of the major issues of the day may have as much to say about those external forces as it does about them. Perhaps much more, in fact.

The piece could also have benefited from some additional facts and figures. Even just this part:

The high regard extends to Santorum's personal life. His seven children have been home-schooled, a practice much more common among conservative American Protestants than Catholics, who have a network of parochial schools built over centuries.

I know many home schoolers and while many of them could be described as Protestant (they're Lutheran), that doesn't mean they're evangelical -- sort of the point of the story. I also know many Catholic home schoolers, atheist home schoolers, plain old hippie home schoolers, etc. Is there data on the practice of homeschooling relative to a religious population? I'm sure there is, but maybe some specifics would help us see how disparate the practice is. Heck, I'd love to know how many Catholics send their kids to parochial schools.

We're told that Santorum frequently questions the authenticity of other Christians but the first substantiation for it is a reference to when Santorum criticized Obama's drilling policy. If he does it so frequently, at the very least we could have an instance that's not such a great example of what happens when the media take things out of context to support a political agenda, right? Again, I get that every reporter I know loathes Rick Santorum with the fire of a thousand suns. But that's no excuse.

The only other example is a reach back to 2008 when Santorum gave a speech as a private citizen to coreligionists about how academia, and the liberal Christianity had been ravaged by a liberal agenda. It's not the best example of his current public campaign, as much as the Drudge Report and various other media have tried to make it so.

Another area where data would have been nice is here:

Romney, Santorum's main rival for the nomination, struggles with conservatives not only because he once supported legalized abortion, which he now condemns, but also from distrust of Mormon teaching among some Christians. He rarely speaks directly about his faith or any other.

Now, the list of why various conservatives don't trust or like Mitt Romney is pretty long and goes far beyond his former support for abortion. That should be mentioned. But how do we know that he suffers from distrust of his Mormon teaching? I mean, I'm familiar with this Gallup study showing that self-identified Democrats are more hostile to Mormons than self-identified Protestants. And I know that the percentage of folks who say they would be hesitant to vote for a Mormon has remained pretty constant since at least the 1960s. But are there studies showing that Romney's struggle to connect with conservative voters is because he's Mormon? I'm sure there must be, in order for this report to assert it so steadfastly, but why not mention which study it is? Inquiring minds and all that.

The story includes some mention of Evangelical and Catholic efforts over the year and then ends with a quote from a Republican who is critical of Santorum.

Like I said, it's just kind of a weird piece. Perhaps it would have been better to speak to some actual Santorum supporters of the evangelical variety in a story about them and about how they're so confused about his religion.

Picture of confused man via Shutterstock.

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