Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

March Web Campaign

Our ongoing work on the web and in First Things magazine assures that your religious ideals and convictions have a voice in the public square. To do that well we need your support. Please click and donate .

R. R. Reno, Editor

On February 25, the Associated Press ran a story with the headline “Santorum Benefits from Mistaken Religious Identity.” What does that mean? To anyone passably literate in contemporary American politics, it suggests that conservative Evangelical voters perceive Rick Santorum to be one of them. I was expecting to read about the results of another poll.

I was wrong. There is no poll. Rachel Zoll, the reporter, notes Santorum’s place in “Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical,” a squib of an article published in the Christian Post . On that slender bit of evidence, introduced about halfway into her story, she builds her insinuation that Santorum is often thought to be an Evangelical.

She fails to adequately substatiate that much, but at least it’s only incidental to her main point, which is solid: Support for Santorum illustrates the political alliance between conservative Evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Here’s the lede:

Rick Santorum’s good political 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.

Granted, the term culture war is barbed, and a more careful formulation would have been something like “set aside theological differences to join their efforts on issues that are important to social conservatives.” But that would have been wordier.

Writing to space, Zoll might well have calculated that the value of tightening her prose outweighed the cost of relaxing her neutrality of tone”although she would have had plenty of space for a dispassionate characterization of the Evangelical“Catholic alliance if only had she leached out of her article that bit of flimsy speculation that the writer of the headline tried to make hay of.

Give her points, though, for aptly referring to the Manhattan Declaration and to Evangelicals and Catholics Together. She describes them with refreshing accuracy, correctly identifying Richard John Neuhaus as “a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism””but then adding, somewhat mysteriously, that he “was also often mistaken for an evangelical.”

Also ? Now I get it: It ties back to that online list of Catholics we (are said to have) thought were Evangelical. Like Santorum, Neuhaus in 2005 was selected by Time magazine to its list of the twenty-five most influential Evangelicals in America. The editors’ stated rationale was that these Catholic men exerted an influence that transcended denominational boundaries.

By this point in the article, my trust in the AP’s ability to handle the delicate business of reporting on what’s happening these days at the intersection of religion and politics is obviously a bit shaken. But never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. Zoll dutifully reports what she must have heard: She writes that Santorum “said recently that President Barack Obama, also a Christian, holds a ‘phony theology,’ then insisted he wasn’t attacking the president’s faith but his environmental views.”

In fact, Santorum really was attacking the president’s environmental views. You can read the transcript online. (See the article “Media Cherry Pick,” linked below.) You may disagree with his observation that environmental extremism is a form of religiosity, but if you follow the news you recognize the notion. It’s familiar. He was adverting to it and clearly endorsing it. But he didn’t invent it.

Neither does Zoll invent the mischaracterization of his speech. She merely repeats what (for fifteen minutes, anyway) became fast legend, which the historical record contradicts. The legend is in the air and requires no research. The digging that the historical record requires isn’t much, but presumably Zoll was writing not only to space but also against the clock, and she might not have had the hour it would have taken to assimilate the facts, articulate them concisely but accurately, and integrate them into her rough narrative.

President Obama referred to “phony religiosity” at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, about two weeks before Santorum’s similar turn of phrase. No controversy was warranted by the president’s choice of words, and none was feigned. By contrast, if you take the trouble to read the context out of which Santorum’s passing reference to “phony theology” was wrenched, you’re liable to be outraged not so much by anything he said as by the fictive quality of the headlines that a Republican presidential candidate attacked Obama’s faith.

In a variation on this trope of journalism’s descent into meme, Mona Charen relates a recent experience with NBC Nightly News, which asked her for her opinion on, in her words, “Rush and the contraceptive flap.” The producers edited her comments to fit the plot of their emotional narrative. But the world is already groaning under the weight of emotional narrative. It’s starved for truth. Could we have some of that?

Nicholas Frankovich is a an editor at Servant Books.


Rachel Zoll, “Santorum Benefits from Mistaken Religious Identity,” Associated Press, February 25, 2012

Nap Nazworth, “Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical,” Christian Post , February 21, 2012

Noel Sheppard, “Media Cherry Pick 41-Minute Santorum Speech to Misrepresent Obama’s ‘Phony Theology,’” Newsbusters , February 20, 2012

Tom Blumer, “AP Nonsense on Santorum: Misidentified as ‘Evangelical”by Time Magazine,” Newsbusters , February 26, 2012

Mona Charen, National Review Online , “NBC Nightly News Editing,” March 1, 2012

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles