Michigan primary: Why GOP evangelicals like Catholic Rick Santorum

In the tight Michigan primary race, Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, leads among Republican evangelicals. Some polls show MItt Romney, a Mormon, leading among Catholics. Battle lines of the culture war aren't what they used to be.

Christian Science Monitor

Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, is the top choice of evangelicals in Michigan, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is favored by Michigan Catholics in some polls.

What’s up with that?

The answer springs foremost from Mr. Santorum’s brand of Catholicism – deeply conservative, and similar to evangelicalism in its approach to social issues (though theologically different). Many voters, in fact, mistake Santorum for a conservative evangelical. His children are home-schooled, and he vocally opposes abortion and gay rights. He also holds a traditionalist view of women’s role in society.

In the latest Mitchell/Rosetta Stone poll of Michigan Republican primary voters, taken Feb. 26, Santorum leads Mr. Romney by 2 percentage points. But among evangelical GOP voters, Santorum is way ahead of Romney, 47 percent to 28 percent. Just six days earlier, Romney trailed Santorum among evangelicals by just 11 points, 35 percent to 24 percent.

Santorum gained by focusing on his social conservatism, and built up his biggest lead yet among evangelicals, who represent 52 percent of the Michigan GOP electorate, says Steve Mitchell, president of the Republican firm Mitchell Research & Communications of East Lansing, Mich., and co-author of the poll.

“Romney was able to turn the tide by hammering Santorum on fiscal issues, calling him a big spender and earmarker,” says Mr. Mitchell. “Over the weekend, Santorum hit very hard on social issues. Romney has chosen not to fight on those issues, because he can’t go as far to the right as Santorum.”

Romney avoids discussion of his faith, as Mormonism is viewed as a cult by some Americans. He also shifted to the right on social issues before his presidential run in 2008, and among some Republicans, his new-found conservatism will always be suspect.

Santorum raised eyebrows last weekend by lashing out at the late President John Kennedy and his landmark speech in 1960 on the separation of church and state. Santorum attacked the Kennedy speech – and then got a little graphic. The speech made him want to “throw up,” he said.

“The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country,” Santorum said Sunday on ABC’s "This Week."

The irony of a Catholic presidential candidate slamming the nation’s first and only Catholic president over a speech made more than 50 years ago aimed at overcoming anti-Catholic feeling among the electorate was lost on few. Historians argue that Santorum’s take on the Kennedy speech is misleading. Kennedy was trying to convince skeptics that, as he put it, he was a “Democratic Party candidate who happens to be Catholic” and not a “Catholic candidate” – i.e., that he would not try to impose Catholic views and practices on the public. That’s a far cry from calling for removal of expressions of faith from the public square.

In a way, the fact that Santorum felt comfortable attacking an iconic Catholic politician in the heat of the primaries shows how far Catholics have come in the political sphere. Polls show that the Catholic vote tends to mirror that of the public at large, and that being Catholic is neither a positive nor a negative for most candidates. Just as conservative Catholics play an important political role in their opposition to abortion and public funding of birth control, so, too, do liberal Catholics influence debate over poverty programs and women’s rights.

Mass skepticism of Catholic politicians’ allegiance by non-Catholics is a thing of the past. In fact, on moral issues, Catholics and evangelicals have been working together since the 1990s.

“Several sociological studies have shown that new alliances between Catholics and evangelicals are an important factor in the ‘culture wars,' ” writes Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., on Beliefnet.com. “Members of the two communities regularly line up together these days in opposing what they see as the forces that are promoting moral deterioriation in American society.”

For many voters, a candidate’s religious views are not important. Thus, for many Catholics, Romney’s Mormon faith is not a deterrent.

About one-quarter of Michigan Republican voters are Catholic. A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of that demographic taken in mid-February showed Romney ahead of Santorum among Catholic voters, 43 percent to 31 percent, even though Santorum was leading Romney overall, 37 percent to 33 percent.

The latest PPP poll, released Feb. 26, now shows Romney slightly ahead overall, 39 percent to 37 percent, though PPP did not have the numbers for Catholics. Newt Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, polled at 9 percent in Michigan. Ron Paul, who is Baptist, polled at 13 percent.

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