The Arizona Republican debate a few weeks ago illustrated some interesting things. Certainly much of the usual sparring ensued, but there was something Rick Santorum said which could potentially have a massive impact on the GOP and presidential race. Though he may not realize this, he finally got the Conservative message right.
Santorum had made some controversial statements on contraception in the preceding weeks and was asked to clarify his position by the moderator. Birth control, of course, is a fiercely controversial and divisive issue, especially in the wake of President Obama’s healthcare contraception requirement for Catholic churches (a complicated issue that can’t fully be explored here). This conflict targets liberal views on contraception and is thus dangerous moral ground for any politician.
Santorum was inches away from calling many couples in the populace downright immoral. But the beauty was in the way he handled the question. At long last, he said what conservatives want to hear. But he also took a position that liberals could tolerate, thereby making him a viable candidate. Santorum said that he wanted to promote the values of Christian marriage, abstinence and morality because this helps build sound societies and safeguard against what he perceives are the social problems caused by single-parent homes. What he stipulated, however, was that it wasn’t the government’s place to impose these values. I don’t know if he planned it, but lucky or not, that was an incredible thing to say.
Part of why liberals are so mortified by many of the Republican candidates is that it seems almost as if they want to tear down the division between church and state. Liberals are afraid to see what the limits of these candidates really are, and sometimes they worry because the Republicans make wildly unrealistic claims. The first point of distinction between being a good candidate and being an average or even sub-par candidate, in my opinion, is assessing the place of government in making moral decisions and understanding the extent of its authority to do so. Conservatives want a moral man; liberals want separation of church and state. The problem is that all the Republican candidates, except Santorum that night, didn’t see that these two were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Santorum bridged this gap perfectly by saying that he would lead the country through his own example and by his beliefs, but government will not be a means of imposing these beliefs. This is leadership in a sense that seems forgotten. A leader isn’t just a machine that makes decisions and manages the levers of government; he is a social influence, a role model. This is why little boys want to grow up to be like the president. They join the boy scouts, they read Hardy Boys novels, and they aspire to become the president. A leader, in some senses, is this very Boy Scout grown up.
He understands the limitations of his position as leader, but he still has a strong core of values. It is commitment to helping the country that calls him to put aside personal belief when necessary, but it is that belief, that morality, which guides him in his overall plan for the development of the society. During the debate, Santorum said, “I believe this, and I think this is where our society should be heading, but I won’t use the government to force this vision on you.” It is thus that both liberals and conservatives can be courted.
It is tragic that in the few weeks since the debate Santorum has completely lost this message. He has grown increasingly controversial and emphasized his belief that there should not be an absolute separation of Church and State. Considering that this is the complete opposite of what he said on the night of the debate, it would indeed appear that he only happened upon the golden message by accident. Therefore, not much can be said about his relevancy as a feasible candidate. Santorum has figuratively shot himself in the foot by taking such a divisive stance. Furthermore, he may have killed the potential revival of the true Republican message.
A leader is more than just a decision maker. He is a moral role model whose job is, in part, to inspire us to be better people. Understanding the limitations of government, he acts with reserve and good judgment. This is the model the Republican Party seems to have lost. Bowing to the pressures of radical beliefs, they have corrupted this message. This, in turn, has made candidates such as Santorum even less likely to be elected. Republican voters want moral leadership in the White House, but morality without good judgment simply doesn’t lead there