Santorum’s War on Satan… er, on Higher Education

Even as he and Mitt Romney continue to battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum is making just as many headlines for calling President Obama a “snob” this past weekend. The basis for the insult was, perhaps, more surprising than the insult itself: the president, he claims, “wants everybody in America to go to college.”

But if we look more deeply into Santorum’s worldview, this attack on higher education is a natural outgrowth of a religious narrative that’s even more troubling than it first appears for anyone who cares about the future of higher education in America. 

Santorum’s anti-intellectual populism, aimed at working class Americans “who go out and work hard every day… [but aren’t] taught by some liberal college professor [who is] trying to indoctrinate them,” isn’t a new development. In fact, he’s used this exact language before, as when he questioned federal support for colleges and universities on the grounds that they are “indoctrination centers of the left.”

Not unlike much of what Santorum says on the campaign trail, its relationship with the facts is flimsy. Santorum speaks as though Obama were pushing all Americans toward a four-year liberal arts education. But as a recent Inside Higher Ed article points out:

[M]ost of the Obama push for expanded higher education has been about community colleges and job-training programs. He has spoken far more about the need to give working class people tools to advance their careers (through certificate and associate degree programs) than he has about four-year liberal arts degrees.

Expanding access to such career-enhancing educational opportunities is, to put it bluntly, the very opposite of elitist snobbery. Even Newt Gingrich, who isn’t the president’s number-one booster, told the Today show that the Obama comment:

[S]trikes me as perfectly reasonable. Everybody in America is going have to get re-educated all the time because jobs are going to change, technology is going to change, and if were going to compete in the world market, we both have to have the best equipment and the best training.

But Santorum doesn’t care about the facts, because attacking Obama on higher education is really just a pretext for pushing what is, for him, a more urgent message—namely that higher education should be viewed as a problem, not an opportunity. Although he currently frames this message in the Tea Party language of “liberal professors” and “indoctrination,” the roots of his stump-speech sallies against academia lie deeper than this, in a religious ideology of cosmic war.

Learning is Spiritual Vulnerability

These deep roots nearly surfaced when Santorum, referencing Harvard’s motto (Veritas, or truth), flippantly commented that “They haven’t seen truth at Harvard in 100 years.” It isn’t a stretch to say that his invocation of “truth” is code for conservative Christian dogma; his real problem with Harvard—and academia in general—is that its scholars do not defer to such dogma. But there’s no need to stretch as Santorum explicitly linked higher education to the work of Satan in a 2008 speech (which has recently gone viral) at Florida’s Ave Maria University. The intimate connection between these views and his recent sallies against higher education, haven’t been fully appreciated. 

In the Ave Maria speech, we find a man earnestly convinced that higher education has become a bastion of Satan in a cosmic holy war. Santorum insists that Satan has “his sights on… the United States of America,” that he has been working on America’s downfall by “attacking the great institutions of America,” and that “the place where he was… most successful and first successful was in academia.”

Santorum continues:

[Satan] understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest. They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and differentpursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart. And so academia a long time ago fell.

You say, well, what could be the impact of academia falling? Well, I would make the argument that the other structures that I’m going to talk about here had the root of their destruction because of academia. Because what academia does is educate the elites in our society, educates the leaders of our society, particularly at the college level. And they were the first to fall.

What we have here, as Joe Laycock notes, is a meta-narrative of cosmic conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And Santorum’s views on academia are not incidental to this cosmic narrative but wholly embedded within it. Scholars in academia engage in critical and reason-based thinking on every conceivable topic of human interest—including religion and religious dogma. As such, conservative Christian teachings are not immune to the academy’s critical attention. But for those who view these teachings as identical with the revealed truth of God, such critical attention will be seen as nothing but hubris; nothing but the vaunting of human pride over God’s word.  

Learning is, in this view, a spiritual vulnerability. Those who are less educated are less likely to critically assess the pronouncements of a religious authority—a critical assessment which, given Santorum’s vision of cosmic holy war, is a Satanic attack on divine truth. 

Furthermore, Santorum sees the “fall” of the academy as the first and crucial step in a broader satanic strategy to bring down the United States. In other words, Santorum’s recent attack on higher education is not just a corollary of the religious narrative he embraces. Higher education is, for him, the central stronghold from which Satan is pursuing a systematic and secretive campaign to win America over from the forces of light. Santorum is a cosmic conspiracy theorist, and higher education sits at the heart of the imagined conspiracy.

Given this cosmic conspiracy theory, widespread access to higher education is not such a good thing. Santorum’s invocation of populist rhetoric and praise of those who pursue a living without ever having gone to college, is in this sense quite honest: for Santorum, higher education really is a problem rather than an opportunity. Unless the institutions of higher learning can be won back from Satan’s stranglehold—that is, until they come to regard conservative Christian teachings as beyond the bounds of the critical methods that define academic inquiry—it would be better if fewer people, rather than more, had access. 

On the campaign trail his rhetoric is purged of explicit Christian language, favoring the bogeyman of liberal professors to the forces of Satan. But Santorum’s religious vision places his more sanitized comments into a disturbing context. The policy implications that such convictions would likely have (for example, on the availability of Pell grants and other federal funding for higher education) should give pause to anyone who isn’t convinced that the battle lines between good and evil should be drawn in quite the way Santorum draws them.

These troubling implications may explain why Santorum, while not disavowing his earlier invocation of Satan and cosmic struggle, wants voters to set them aside as irrelevant “old speeches to religious groups” that are nothing but a distraction from his message. But this vision of cosmic war, far from being an irrelevant distraction, permeates and enlivens Santorum’s political platform. When Santorum sounds as if he is attacking higher education as such… well, he is. And his attack is backed up by all the conviction of a holy warrior taking on the forces of evil.