Jeet Heer

Can Rick Santorum become U.S. president if his name isn't even safe for kids to Google?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is nobody's idea of a sexy politician. With his earnest theological lectures and propensity for grandpa-like sweater-vests that even Stephen Harper would find too dowdy, he's the opposite of a Kennedy or a Trudeau.

“I may not be the guy that the girls are initially attracted to when they walk into the dance hall,” Mr. Santorum himself admits. “But ultimately, once you get to know all the folks, I'm the one you want to take home to Mom.”

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Yet the truth is that, whether you're with him or against him, Mr. Santorum's candidacy is all about sex. From birth control to abortion to same-sex marriage, matters of the heart and loins are the main planks in his conservative-culture-warrior platform. And that seduced enough of the Republican base to have brought him within eight votes of victory in this week's Iowa primary.

Where less-virile candidates rail against abortion, Mr. Santorum denounces even birth control. “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country,” he told an interviewer last October. “Many of the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that's okay. Contraception is okay.' It's not okay. It's a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

He has also used remarkably pungent terms to attack same-sex marriage, comparing it in 2003 to “man-on-child” or “man-on-dog” sex. Those remarks earned the ire of gay-rights activists – including, unfortunately for Mr. Santorum, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage.

To give the then-senator from Pennsylvania a lesson in the dangers of abusive language, the Seattle-based but nationally syndicated columnist asked his readers to come up with alternative, offensive meanings for “santorum.” The winning entry defined it as, to put it delicately, a byproduct of anal sex.

The neologism quickly took off, becoming one of the most successful digital pranks of the decade, and raising this novel conundrum: Can a man become president if his last name is not safe for schoolchildren to Google?

Now, because of Mr. Savage, it is almost impossible to write about Mr. Santorum without double entendres, whether deliberate or accidental. On National Public Radio, a reporter referred to the “come-from-behind candidate” while the Christian Broadcasting Network proclaimed, “Santorum surging to the top.” Fox News made the unfortunate decision to use the colour brown to highlight areas in Iowa where Mr. Santorum was most successful.

Mr. Santorum repeatedly has complained about the savaging of his good name, arguing that it is an affront to civility. “There are foul people out there who do horrible things,” he told an interviewer in 2011.

A former altar boy, Mr. Santorum is often portrayed as an avatar of Catholic conservatism. Yet it's only on “family values” issues that he follows Vatican dictates. As a foreign-policy hawk, an opponent of the welfare state, a believer in the death penalty, an adversary of immigrant rights, a foe of environmentalism and a climate-change denier, he is well outside the mainstream of Catholic social thought as articulated by both the Vatican and the American church.

In fact, his biggest fans are among evangelical Protestants, who made up the bulk of his Iowa supporters. In past decades, conservative Protestants were usually pro-contraception (and often anti-Catholic), even when they opposed abortion. This has been changing: Increasingly, evangelical Christians are starting to echo their Catholic brethren in arguing that birth control is the first step in the moral regression that leads to abortion.

One significant glue in this alliance is the “personhood” movement, supported by Catholics and Protestants alike, which seeks to bestow legal rights to fetuses, a move that would make illegal not just abortion but some forms of a birth control such as the intrauterine device.

Will the Santorum surge soon be, er, spreading across the United States? Even some conservatives are skeptical, believing that Mr. Santorum's holy war against sexual freedom goes too far.

As David Frum dryly noted on Twitter, birth control is “pretty popular outside Iowa.” On the National Review website, Ramesh Ponnuru, himself a conservative Catholic, confessed that “there is no significant constituency in the GOP that wants a president to make the case against contraception.” Yet perhaps these pundits underestimate the appeal of Mr. Santorum's brand of sexual politics.

With the lingering recession and the European Union teetering, the 2012 election was supposed to be all about the economy. Divisive social issues were to be put on the back burner. But Mr. Santorum has shown that even in hard times, it's still easier to spark some voters' imaginations by talking about bedroom controversies rather than boardroom ones.



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