Santorum Drops Out

April 12, 2012

On Tuesday, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum ended his long-shot bid to garner the Republican presidential nomination (see post here on why he said he was "suspending" his campaign). Although he came a distant second to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Santorum's campaign was a clear success for his political voice and legacy (the photo is one I took of Santorum in Iowa last August). When Santorum launched his campaign, few commentators took his candidacy seriously because of how badly he lost his senate reelection bid in 2006 and because of his record of controversial positions and statements. However, Santorum won eleven states despite being vastly overspent by Romney. His success has revived his political standing and ensures he will remain an important conservative voice over the next few years. Santorum's success in the campaign clearly demonstrated the continuing impact of confessional politics as he won voters in large part due to his religious appeal and appeals. His harsh critiques on John F. Kennedy's perspective on religion and politics are perhaps the most obvious example of how substantially things have changed in our society (see posts here, here, here, here, and here)--which is a key point in my book on confessional politics.

Perhaps one of the most important impacts of Santorum's campaign is how it demonstrates the political rise of evangelical Catholics. During the campaign, conservative evangelicals rallied behind the candidacies of two Catholics--lifelong Catholic Santorum and recent Catholic convert Newt Gingrich. As a result, evangelical Protestants like Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann found themselves left behind and forced to leave the race due to a lack of support from their own community. Yet, even as evangelicals support the life-long Catholic, they still embraced an evangelical. Named in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in the U.S., Santorum's success in this presidential campaign--especially his strength in Southern and Midwestern states--demonstrates the growing societal and political importance of evangelical Catholics. Other prominent evangelical Catholics include several Republicans often rumored to be vice presidential possibilities: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

With the rise of prominent evangelical Catholics, the union between the two groups has created an even stronger political force. These various changes have altered the political relationship between candidates and Catholic leaders. Discussing the role religion plays in presidential campaigns, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who lost the Catholic vote to evangelical George W. Bush, explained in 2007: "But the bottom line is that the Catholicism that I grew up with is quite different from the Catholicism that we have today, and that is partly due to Vatican II and to a reevaluation within the church about how the church would reach out and talk to its flock. ... Nowadays, it's much more evangelical, and by evangelical, something is evangelical when Christ is at its center and the Bible is at its center." Thus, Kerry found himself being faced with the opposite dilemma that John F. Kennedy faced during his 1960 presidential campaign. While evangelical Protestants questioned if Kennedy was too Catholic to be president, evangelicals questioned if Kerry was Catholic or religious enough to be president. As Santorum and Gingrich worked to mobilize evangelical voters in primary states, they often spoke in evangelical Protestant churches and openly talked about their Christian faith. That two Catholics became the preferred candidates of evangelical Protestants should not be surprising since Santorum and Gingrich--as evangelical Catholics--are able to unite both camps. Interestingly, Santorum did much better in the primary among Protestants than he did among Catholics (although he did well among Catholics who attend services more than once a week). Even though Santorum and Gingrich both fell short of the nomination in this campaign, their successes serve as signs of what is likely to come in presidential politics as evangelical Catholics continue to grow in religious and political importance.

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