Santorum Invoked Satan

Rick Santorum’s campaign is currently in damage control after Right Wing Watch dug up a speech he made in 2008 in which he described America as a nation besieged by Satan. The speech was given to Catholic students at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, which was founded by Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s pizza. Like Santorum, Monaghan is a conservative Catholic strongly opposed to abortion, contraception, and pornography). 

Appealing to the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, Santorum explained that America, above all countries, has been targeted by Satan for corruption. He explained that Satan had already succeeded in destroying the mainline Protestant churches, which now lie “in shambles.”

Santorum’s comments about Satan were picked up by The Drudge Report. MSNBC gleefully put together a montage of Santorum’s comments mixed with images of cartoon devils. Other Republicans have weighed in, with Sarah Palin voicing her support for Santorum, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie conceding that the 2008 speech is relevant to Santorum’s candidacy. Santorum has stood behind his comments, but also claimed that focusing on a speech delivered to his fellow Catholics is a distraction from the issues of the campaign. With Sarah Palin, Santorum claims he was speaking of the reality of evil and his willingness to fight evil as president.

But the issue is not that Santorum believes in good and evil. Obama has also expressed his belief in evil and the need to use discernment in confronting it. Unlike Obama, Santorum believes in evil that is transcendent and supernatural—Satan. So do many conservative voters. In fact, America has always been a nation drenched in spiritual warfare.

Historians note that since the Puritans, ideas of American exceptionalism have gone hand in hand with a narrative of supernatural struggle against Satan. Survey data suggests that many Americans believe in the reality of the devil. Conservative Christians participating in pro-life demonstrations and picketing have described their engagement on social issues in terms of a battle against spiritual evil. There is every reason to think that for Santorum and his base, voting is only one more battle in a cosmic war against Satan. Why then, was the 2008 speech newsworthy?

To have a broad appeal, conservative Christian candidates are forced to downplay their beliefs in spiritual warfare and supernatural evil. While conservative politicians often speak of evil, it is rare that they actually mention Satan. In fact, “Evil” has become a homonym in American political discourse, meaning immorality and injustice to some and the supernatural influence of Satan to others.

It should not be surprising that a conservative Catholic like Santorum believes in Satan and sees supernatural forces at play in contemporary social issues. But conservative Christians sow the seeds of this confusion by speaking openly about Satan only in venues like Ave Maria University. As a result, the effect that belief in Satan exerts on American politics has gone under the radar, concealed by the false narrative that America has become a secular culture. This is a problem for voters, who need to know not only the policies of presidential candidates, but the worldview that informs those policies. Baudelaire wrote that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. In this sense, when conservative politicians use secular language to cloak their belief in Satan, they are doing the devil’s work.

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