U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Evangelicals and Santorum Together: the Lure of War

A few days ago, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told Frank Luntz, who moderated a forum hosted by the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, that evangelicals need a candidate who “can take the bullets.” Santorum’s reference to violence was not meant literally–he didn’t volunteer to fight in Afghanistan…or Iran (for that matter). However, Santorum wants to remind folks that he understands war–if only rhetorically. In fact, it might be the former senator’s bluster on military matters that has increased his appeal among conservative evangelicals. After all, his stance on social issues–the family, homosexuals, and abortion–echoes all other GOP candidates. He has been, though, more forthright–perhaps even reckless–when it comes to thinking out loud about war.

Following questions on homosexuals and abortion, the Santorum and his wife answered a question posed by Luntz about military service. The Santorums agreed that they would be proud to have their children enter the military and fight for the United States, though Santorum was quick to correct what he viewed as a prevailing misperception that he hoped for war with Iran. Rather, he clarified, “If Iran is not stopped from developing a nuclear weapon…there will be ‘war that we have never seen the likes of in this country, and it is not a matter taking out this regime, it’s not a matter of preemptive war, it’s a matter of taking out this nuclear ability that would change the face of our country.'” Syntax aside (and perhaps logic as well), why is Santorum speaking about war with Iran changing the face of our country? The face of Iran, the Persian Gulf, perhaps, but our country?


A war, or at least talk of one, can change our country, of course. And speaking to a gathering of conservative evangelicals about such change was probably a sensible idea. As Andrew Bacevich observed in a book on the post-Vietnam romance many evangelicals developed with the military: “In the aftermath of Vietnam, evangelicals came to see the military as an enclave of virtue, a place of refuge where the sacred remnant of patriotic Americans gathered and preserved American principles from extinction.” As their neocon allies also cheered in the late 1990s, a martial attitude would correct America’s long delusional obsession with the culture wars.

Santorum is Catholic and his endorsement by evangelicals is not as shocking as it once might have been. But among the reasons for this rapprochement between these groups has been the steady development among conservative religious leaders of unified view of war–for more on this see the writing of Catholics George Wiegel and Michael Novak and, yes, Richard John Neuhuas. Of course, liberal religious leaders also found common ground on the issue of war; in the middle of the Vietnam War, groups such as CALCAV spoke out against the dangers of war for the nation. However, for conservatives that war served as an awakening of a different kind, distilling a moral language that would discriminate “patriots” from critics. Conservatives of various religious denominations concluded that the soul of America was worth sacrificing for, even if they would not volunteer to perform that service personally.

What conservatives of the 1970s rediscovered was the sublime nature of war in the abstract. Corey Robin pointed out on his blog recently that conservatism does not, by principle, tend to avoid war and violence, but, by practical necessity, seeks to channel its emotional power into a philosophical rush. War in the abstract–war in the sense of giving oneself over to something greater or, better, of commanding the ultimate sacrifice for something greater–is the conservative’s oversoul. The realities of prosecuting a war, of paying for it, cleaning up after it, of dealing with the grief it causes, can be dismissed to the functions of the state. The nation can command sacrifice, the state only manages the paperwork.
So while Mitt Romney prattles on about his business acumen, and Newt Gingrich bellows about his big ideas for big problems (including, apparently, intergalactic empires), Rick Santorum might be the conservative to speak about the meaning of sacrifice in terms that the faithful will understand. And what about Ron Paul…well, I think more than just the GOP could stand to hear his analysis of war and the nation.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. How about his comments on The Netherlands? He stated that people wear bracelets with “please do not euthanize me” on it. Off all deaths 10% was supposed to be from euthanasia and half of these deaths were people being euthanized involuntarily by the state. He obviously must be pro-legalized drugs as such nonsense can only come from someone who is a crackhead.

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