Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Sen. Rick Santorum. Among politicians, he’s unusually good at articulating the views of the Christian right, and he’s also willing to debate on the record.
Flogging his new book, It Takes a Family, on WNYC yesterday, Santorum accused the Left of promoting “radical individualism” at the expense of the family. The Right’s view of freedom, he said, was “a freedom with responsibility to something beyond yourself, a freedom to do not what you want to do – not simply “choice” – but the freedom to do what you ought to do.” Santorum admits that not all on the Right share this view. I assume he’s referring to the do-unto-others-and-then-the-hell-with-’em Corporate Right, which actually runs the US, but that’s a subject for another essay.
The Left, on the other hand, according to Santorum, defines freedom as personal autonomy, as encapsulated by the Supreme Court’s formulation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:
Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Santorum then presents his objection to the Court’s formulation:
People going around doing whatever they think is right is imposing a moral view on me… People doing whatever they want to do, and people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint, it’s a radically secular one, it is one that does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold… It is a decisively moral point of view. It’s one that I don’t agree with.
Let’s take a closer look at that argument. Santorum begins by taking a very questionable leap of logic. He infers that if you grant a right to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” one is also granting a right for people to be “going around doing whatever they think is right.” That’s a pretty distorted interpretation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Indeed, it’s not a big step from there to the kind of anti-science thinking that led to the persecution of Galileo among others. What the Court actually did is reassert the freedom of religion, using secular terms so as to also describe the broader freedom to think for oneself. Inherent in the Court’s statement, of course, is the idea that people may legitimately have opposing beliefs about “when life begins.”
Santorum’s clever tactic is to interpret the Court’s decision as an endorsement of moral relativism. And by claiming that “people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint” he makes it seem as if thinking for oneself is in itself a rigid belief system and, further, he implies that because humans who think for themselves may sometimes have immoral thoughts or reach morally questionable conclusions, the very act of thinking for oneself is morally suspect. Thus he redefines freedom of thought as something it is not (a point of view) and strikes out at that supposed point of view using his own “pro-family” beliefs.
His use of the phrase “radically secular” is telling. This phrase is meant to taint the neutral term “secular” with an extremist aura. That tactic didn’t work – in the long run, anyway – when the Moral Majority defined, and then set about beating up on, something they referred to as “secular humanism,” and ultimately talking about things being “radically secular” won’t work either, since – and Rick Santorum may not realize this – by and large religious people don’t feel threatened by the word “secular.”
Having misinterpreted an assertion of freedom as an endorsement of chaos, Santorum goes on to complain that it “does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold.” But the very “common values” of which he speaks arise from a specific interpretation of Christian morality (combined with a male-centric longing for a mom-and-pop America that never was) against which he sees an opposing “moral point of view” (thinking for oneself). Santorum wants to have it both ways. He wants to appear open-minded, willing to describe his morality as one among alternatives and open to discussion, but he also wants to dispense with those alternatives by redefining them as chaotic and amoral.
Not bad, Senator! I salute your obfuscatory abilities.