When I heard yesterday that Sarah Palin was already talking about a potential presidential bid in 2016, I saw the writing on the wall: The Republican establishment isn’t even pretending to care about 2012 anymore. That an Obama win seems certain despite Obama’s middling approval ratings is an embarrassment to the Republican Party, to be sure. The people in the trenches care, certainly, but the Party bigwigs? Not so much.
Even so, those who are sounding alarms about the end of the Party as we know it need to calm down and remember 2004. By the end of George W. Bush’s first term, his approval ratings were also middling. It’s true that John Kerry’s frontrunner status was clearer by this point in 2004, but it’s also true that he was a terrible candidate who was never going to become president of the United States. People felt he was stiff, elitist and out of touch with so-called “ordinary Americans.” He couldn’t do either of the two things Americans liked to see in an incumbent: (1) deliver a charismatic stump speech or (2) establish a folksy, we-could-drink-beer-together affect. Sound familiar?
I am convinced that Mitt Romney is filling the same role in 2012 that John Kerry did then: mediocre and bland filler candidate who will not win, but who can minimize embarrassment to the Party, which will double down and groom one or two more serious candidates next time around. And while establishment Republicans – and urban Americans – may be more comfortable with a business shill (Romney) than a Christian fundamentalist (Santorum), it’s post-neocon Christian fundamentalists – that is, Tea Partiers – who have energized the Republican Party since 2008. And in 2012, if you can’t even manage to excite the Party’s influential evangelical base, you’re not going to win.
That’s why those of us who value foundational ideals like the separation of church and state should welcome Romney’s inevitable nomination. If it isn’t Romney, it’s going to be the Christian fundamentalist, Rick Santorum. And Rick Santorum might actually win. Unlike Romney, he has growing momentum in his favor. He is comparatively likeable, maybe even charismatic. Plus, the Christian Right is no longer the fringe movement it was in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan teamed up with Jerry Falwell to politicize conservative Christians. It is now one of the most energetic contingents within the Party.
Because of this, I was particularly disgusted when I learned that Michigan liberals prompted by the Daily Kos were turning out the vote for Santorum. And it was all in fun, meant to be hilarious and clever. And it was harmless, right? Because an extremist like Santorum could never assume the Presidency of the United States? Right?
Well, I’m sure all the hilarity had Santorum laughing all the way to Super Tuesday. Today, it is impossible to guess how much of an impact so-called “Operation Hilarity” had on last night’s results. All we know is that Santorum continues in the race. And that Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich may drop out of the race any day now, ensuring the possibility of an even more meteoric rise for the one-time joke candidate best known for provoking the ire of Dan Savage. If nothing else, last night made it clear that, even if Romney remains the frontrunner, we will need to start thinking about the possibility that Santorum could secure the nomination.
Rather than continuing to treat Santorum as a joke, we need to consider the real possibility that he could actually become President of the United States. Make no mistake: I still believe that Obama is likely to win the election, even though much can change over the next eight months. But the fact that Santorum could get close should make us all very nervous. Again, because he might win, and in fact, I think he is more likely to win than the current frontrunner, who is universally disliked and energizes no one. Let it roll around in your mind for a moment: Rick Santorum could ascend to our nation’s Presidency.
“Operation Hilarity” confirmed what I have intuitively believed for some time: Most liberal Americans do not understand the Christian Right at all. Honestly, I am not even convinced that most conservatives do. Indeed, I find it very hard to believe that the people showing up in droves to support Santorum fully understand his brand of extremism.
Consider that Santorum, more than any other candidate, has pushed to make contraception a matter of national debate in 2012. Contraception. I was rather alarmed when I saw Vyckie Garrison of the popular ex-fundamentalist blog, No Longer Quivering, write, “Quiverfull goes mainstream” in response to the debate. Quiverfull is a particularly rigid movement within conservative Christianity that pressures families to forego any form of family planning in favor of “trusting God to bless you with as many children as he sees fit.” And Santorum has made it very clear that he shares Quiverfull ideals about contraception.
But this isn’t the quaint conviction of a small fringe group. No, it’s a worldview steeped in the Dominionist project to “take Dominion of the earth for Christ” through legal and electoral channels and, when necessary, through force. The American pastors who flirt with the idea of criminalizing LGBT people and who promote it as policy in Africa? Quiverfull. The people who insist that the founding fathers were all evangelical Christians who never intended the separation of church and state? Quiverfull. The people for whom it is controversial for women to go to college and/or work outside the home? Quiverfull. The people who fear that public schools are evil, humanist cesspools that will turn their children against God? Quiverfull Quiverfull Quiverfull.
And as the object of “Operation Hilarity,” Santorum flirts with Quiverfull ideology all the time. His children are homeschooled. He opposes contraception. He endorses traditional gender roles. He insists that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. And most mainstream Americans write him off as the product of what they think they know about conservative Christianity. They see a man influenced by James Dobson and who can’t possibly be all that dangerous.
But Focus on the Family is not what we are talking about when we consider Santorum’s politics. We should be looking more closely at R.J. Rushdoony, a man little known outside the Christian Right who is nevertheless considered the father of Christian Dominionism, and his writings make Dobson look like a liberal. It’s true, as a fundamentalist Calvinist, he would never have trusted Santorum’s Catholicism. But the base that once supported Michelle Bachmann, who cites Rushdoony as one of her biggest influences, has become galvanized behind Rick Santorum. Rushdoony called for death by hanging for “homosexuals” and “unchaste women” in his Institutes of Biblical Law, published in the 1970’s. Think about that for a minute. Then, you arrogant Democrat hacks, we can have a chat about how “hilarious” it would be for Rick Santorum to win the nomination.
Front page photo: Rick Santorum praying at an Arizona Republican Party fundraiser in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.