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Rick Santorum and the Social Issues

One of the arguments Senator Rick Santorum made on behalf of his campaign was that if he were the nominee, he’d succeed in making Barack Obama the subject of the election, not himself.

That was before Santorum shot to the top of the GOP field. What candidates can never fully anticipate, until they’re considered a frontrunner, is the sheer intensity of the focus on their past record and words. That’s now happening to Santorum, and suddenly he’s on the defensive, despite his best efforts to avoid that from happening.

The main (though not exclusive) problem for Santorum is his rhetorical approach to social issues. He’s said he would be the one president who would talk about the damage contraception does to American society. He’s spoken quite openly about criminalizing doctors who perform abortions. He’s made a passionate case against prenatal testing. He’s been quite forthright in his views against homosexual acts, about women in combat, and about women in the workforce. He’s given a speech in which he’s said Satan has systematically targeted the key institutions in American life. The danger for Santorum is that, fairly or not, these statements and stands, separately and (especially) combined, create a portrait of a person who is censorious and sits in critical judgment of the lifestyle of most Americans.

The prospect of an American president using the “bully pulpit” to speak out about the dangers and damaging effects of contraception on American society (including among married couples) is not a reassuring one.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important tone and countenance are when it comes to social issues. There is a great deal to be said for those who care about the cultural condition of American society. But the arguments on behalf of moral truth need to be made in ways that are winsome, in a manner that is meant to persuade. What this means, in part, is the person making the arguments needs to radiate some measure of grace and tolerance rather than condemnation and zeal. What we’re talking about is using a light touch rather than a heavy hand. To understand the difference, think about how the language (and spirit) of the pro-life movement shifted from accusing people of being “baby killers” to asking Americans to join a movement in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah.

A wise observer told me years ago that for a politician to be seen as the aggressor in the culture wars is the quickest way to lose them. That is something Rick Santorum should bear in mind as this race moves forward.

 



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