Ash Wednesday – that’s the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) down in New Orleans is over, as is the famous carnival (literally, farewell to the flesh) in Rio. Ash Wednesday is when you simply stop all that wild stuff – the first day of Lent. It’s biblical. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert before he got around to his real work, spreading the Word. And if fasting in the desert wasn’t bad enough, Jesus endured temptation by Satan, visiting Jesus and offering Him worldly goodies like fame and power, and good times. So Lent, the roughly forty-day period before Easter, is a fixed liturgical period of prayer and fasting that mirrors Jesus fasting in the empty desert and repeatedly telling Satan, well, thanks but no thanks. And to emulate Jesus, good Catholics give up something pleasurable for Lent – chocolate or scotch or Doris Day movies or whatever. It’s a symbolic concession to the notion that we’re not supposed to get too comfortable here on earth. One must resist Satan. Non-Catholics sip scotch and watch whatever movies they’d like.
And this Ash Wednesday we have two Catholics – Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich – running for president, or for their party’s nomination to run for president. And one has an interesting relation to Satan:
Rick Santorum, the front-runner in most national polls for the Republican nomination, was last night relishing controversy over remarks he made four years ago about Satan having “his sights” on America and accused Barack Obama of “crushing” the country’s Christian values. … Mr Santorum was drawing particular attention after the resurfacing of a speech he gave at a Christian university in Florida in 2008 that is highlighting his radical Christian stripes. His religiosity has helped him to win the enthusiastic support of the Republican right but which could alienate moderate and independent voters if he were to become the nominee.
“This is not a political war at all, this is not a culture war at all, this is a spiritual war,” Mr Santorum told students at Ave Maria University in Naples. “And the father of lies has his sights on what you think the father of lies, Satan, would have his sights on. A good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America…”
This has been discussed quite a bit, and Ed Kilgore sees it this way:
Largely missing in the discussion of Santorum’s subscription to a supernatural cosmology is the fact that he views American history as essentially a struggle between “true Christians” like himself on the one hand, and Beelzebub on the other, in which the latter has already conquered academia and mainline Protestantism, and is by inference exercising his infernal control via the policies of that noted former academic and mainline Protestant, the President of the United States. Much of what Santorum has to say about current events is heavily colored by this “worldview,” most notably the belief that the president and his devilish supporters are laboring to wipe out “true” Christianity by forcing its staunch defenders, from the U.S. Conference of Bishops to innocent job-creators, to become complicit in such idolatrous practices as the slaughter of zygotes and the worship of the false idols of reproductive rights and the Environmental Earth-Goddess.
Yes, it’s absurd, but Kilgore sees a danger here:
By ignoring all this and simply mocking Santorum as someone too unsophisticated to understand the supernatural as a fairy tale for rubes, his MSM [mainstream media] tormenters are not only letting him off the hook for his sinister interpretation of politics as holy war, but are doing him the signal service of reinforcing his Manichean vision of America torn between humble believers and derisive, self-satisfied elites.
Yes, perhaps it doesn’t matter that Santorum asserts that Satan is quite real and actually walks among us – just as it might not matter if Jesus was actually hallucinating in the desert, woozy from dehydration and near-starvation and only imagining his Satan. Kilgore is more concerned with Santorum’s message – there are the true-believers, like him, and the rest of you are brainwashed scum. That’s hardly the way to inspire and unify a troubled nation in economic distress. And too, maybe America isn’t ready for a president who attributes all that’s not right in the world to the work of Satan. If you start with that assumption, the specific public policy decisions that logically follow from that assumption might be a little strange. Exorcism might not fix the tax code. Maybe Santorum should give up this Satan-talk for Lent. The idea is to give up something you really enjoy.
But Santorum is doing just fine – leading his Republican rivals in all the national polls. He’s locked up the excitable and severely resentful party base, who seem to be longing for an all-white Christian theocracy that will take us back to the heady days of Ozzie and Harriet and cheap gas – the pre-hippie days, before the sexual revolution, when minorities were quiet and generally invisible and no one was gay. There are enough of these very angry people to keep Santorum surging ahead in the polls. He might win the nomination. Then we’ll see if there are more very angry people than those just not nostalgic for Ed Sullivan and big Plymouth sedans with big fins.
Of course Santorum got to show his stuff to his party on Ash Wednesday at the twentieth Republican debate, held, fittingly, out in the empty desert, in Mesa, Arizona. But it wasn’t the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness – just a CNN debate moderated by John King:
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum mixed it up over their records on the debt, taxes and earmarks Wednesday night in the first Republican presidential debate in almost a month, and the first before three contests in the next 10 days followed by the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses on March 6.
Answering a question from the audience on how to bring down the nation’s debt, the former Massachusetts governor attacked Santorum’s record when he was representing Pennsylvania in the Senate.
“Voting for the debt ceiling five different times without voting for compensating cuts,” said Romney, describing Santorum as a big spender in Congress. “Voting to fund Planned Parenthood, voting to expand the Department of Education. During his term in the Senate spending grew by some 80% of the federal government.”
Satan didn’t come up:
The candidates hotly confronted each other in a lengthy and contentious argument over the arcane congressional process of earmarking.
“Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money,” Santorum declared in a full-throated detailed defense of the process – one he said Romney had taken advantage of when he requested funds for the 2002 Olympic Games in Utah.
“I didn’t follow all of that,” Romney cracked after Santorum finished speaking. “But I can tell you this: I would put a ban on earmarks. I think it opens the door to excessive spending.”
Santorum did not back down, telling Romney: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This was a secular debate, and it got snippy:
While listening to Santorum’s criticism, Romney shook his head or looked slightly to the side with a pained expression on his face. Santorum raised his eyebrows at Romney’s attacks at him and looked off to the side as if he was running Romney’s words through his mind.
Meanwhile, at several points Gingrich was captured chuckling at the other candidates’ statements.
While Romney and Santorum grew heated at times, Paul deflated the tension a bit when asked why he had labeled Santorum a fake in a television ad that attacked the former senator’s conservative credentials.
“Because he’s a fake,” Paul said.
That line drew cheers, laughter and boos, before Santorum assured moderator John King that he was real.
“Congratulations,” Paul responded.
Maybe the Republicans should have given up debating for Lent. This was pointless. And that was shown in some of the initial reactions, as Will Wilkinson offered this:
The race has come down to Santorum and Romney, and they both failed to distinguish themselves tonight. Both repeatedly offered convoluted answers in the attempt to establish trivial points. As everyone’s noted, Romney’s success at hall-packing made him look like a winner even though he’s losing to Rick Freaking Santorum. … I am ashamed of and afraid for my country.
And Taegan Goddard states the obvious:
The real winner tonight was President Obama. After twenty debates, his potential rivals have done wonders for his re-election chances.
And at the conservative National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru argues here that Santorum had a bad night:
He has spent way too long explaining himself on Arlen Specter and earmarks. No matter how good his answer is – and I’m inclined to agree with him about earmarks – time spent on these topics hurts him.
Maybe Santorum should have just stuck with the Satan talk. The earmark stuff was wonk-talk. But Josh Marshall is still trying to figure out Romney’s auto bailout answer:
Romney opposes the auto bailout. But now he only opposes the money given before the bankruptcy phase. And what happened when they put the companies through a managed bankruptcy was what Mitt wanted all the time. So they actually figured out what to do from Mitt. Only that wasn’t good either because it was a sell out to the unions. In a Rube Goldberg kind of way it sort of makes sense. But having tried to pander in every possible way at the time and doing the same thing now, the whole thing just comes out as an incomprehensible jumble.
And Andrew Sprung is really weary of Gingrich, Romney and Santorum’s calls for new wars all over the place:
When the discussion turns to foreign policy, there is nothing these three won’t say to inspire the fear and hatred they think will push themselves past their rivals for the nomination and ultimately tear down Obama. Nothing.
Rod Dreher agrees:
So, Mitt says that if we vote for him, we’ll go to war with Iran before we allow it to have nuclear weapons. Santorum agrees. … For me, this election is shaping up to having to decide between protecting religious freedom… and going to war.
It was dismal, and a few running comments from Andrew Sullivan:
8.33 pm. Boos, sneers, gotchas … all about earmarks, which is a meaningless issue without a line item veto, which Rick and Mitt agree on. Newt eventually calls Romney on his bullshit. In the end, Ron Paul managed something of a win. But it was a confusing, petty cat-fight. They all lost. I would have turned off the TV by now if I weren’t being paid to keep watching. …
8.40 pm. John King destroys Mitt Romney by citing Bush administration officials on the complete lack of private capital to buy up a bankrupt auto industry on the brink of a global depression. Then you see the candidates pivot to the UAW, where they are more comfortable. The truth is: I opposed the auto bailout but have been proven pretty obviously wrong. And attacking the bipartisan process – begun by Bush and continued by Obama – that saved Detroit seems to me to be not so great a political argument. …
8.52 pm. Santorum seems to be arguing that active teen sexuality requires us to argue against contraception. Run that by me again? …
9.26 pm. The president who destroyed al Qaeda and captured and killed Osama bin Laden is “the most dangerous in the history of America.” Yep: that’s what Newt just said.
9.28 pm. Ron Paul brings up Catholic just war theory, which bars pre-emptive, aggressive war and torture, both of which are backed by the two Catholics.
9.40 pm. Santorum really does seem to be implying that Obama has some kind of secret agenda vis-a-vis Iran. And he pretty obviously would launch a massive war on Iran. We’re hearing the kind of language we heard after 9/11 – exactly the same language – exactly the same arguments; exactly the same paranoia. There seems to be no memory of the Iraq war at all. It never happened. There was no error. There is nothing to explain. And yet they do not seem to realize that that catastrophic war is the reason Barack Obama is president. It’s like an etch-a-sketch party. Shake it one election cycle – and the past disappears completely!
Well, if you wander around the desert long enough you do end up hallucinating.
But it was Ash Wednesday and, earlier in the day, Slate’s John Dickerson posted his Ash Wednesday column:
In this Lenten season we are called upon to be generous of spirit, so let’s start there. The Santorum campaign is under siege. Mitt Romney and his backers are dropping millions of dollars in ads on his head. He’s being called to account for everything he’s said for his entire career in an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for reasoned discussion. The press accounts of some of his recent comments, like his remark about Obama’s phony theology, have cast him in the worst possible light before letting him clarify.
And this wasn’t helped by one of Santorum’s advisers suggested to the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that this just wasn’t fair – Mitt Romney was getting a free ride – “Why is Mormonism off limits?” The complaint boiled down to whining that Santorum was forever being asked to explain the finer points of ultra-traditional Catholic doctrine and every time anyone brought up Mormon doctrine Mitt got away with just changing the subject to the economy. And that wasn’t fair at all.
But Dickerson isn’t buying that:
Rick Santorum isn’t being asked about his faith. He’s being asked about statements that have come out of his own mouth about contraception, prenatal screening, and man’s dominion over earth. Even if we stipulate that the press is asking a disproportionate number of questions about these issues – instead of, say, his manufacturing plan or his position on Syria – the questions I’ve heard haven’t been about papal infallibility or the Catechism. When the press wants to ask gotcha questions about doctrinal matters, they ignore everything the candidate actually talks about and ask about evolution – as they regularly did with Mike Huckabee during the 2008 race.
This is a dodge. And when you make a dodge of faith, you cheapen it – not the least because you make the plea seem like just another political move. It’s not the first time in this election season. While in South Carolina, Anita Perry said of her husband’s suffering campaign: “We are being brutalized by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is, I think … because of his faith.” Forgive me Father: hogwash. Perry had rough treatment not because of his faith but because he was a bad presidential candidate.
But Dickerson will concede one point, but only barely:
It is true, as the Santorum adviser claims, Romney pivots back to talking about the economy when asked about his religion. But that’s just campaign discipline. Romney switches back to the economy when asked what breakfast cereal he prefers. Santorum doesn’t pivot because he can’t: The questions he gets aren’t about his faith. They’re about things he says. Why? Because, in part, Santorum is appealing to evangelical voters. It’s hard to pivot away from answering for your own remarks by saying they’re not germane.
And then there’s the small matter of Satan:
Rick Santorum’s comments about the Father of Lies from 2008 are in the news. Is it unfair to ask Santorum about these remarks? No. If Rick Santorum would like Mitt Romney to answer for remarks he made about abortion long ago, it’s fair for Santorum to have to answer about more recent remarks about Lucifer’s dominion over America. Maybe he was asked too many questions about Satan, but that’s a sin of excess, not a fixation on faith.
But there has been talk, like Rich Lowry of the National Journal defending Santorum, saying only Santorum gets hammered on this, because Santorum “is a standing affront to the sensibilities and assumptions of the media and political elite.” And Dickerson adds this:
Calling Santorum a “standing affront” overstates the case, but the newsrooms on the coasts are not filled with people who share his worldview. But the idea of a left-wing conspiracy loses steam when you recognize how many conservatives are pointing out the shortcomings of Santorum’s campaign and his handling of social issues.
And he goes on to cite many of those and adds this:
With so many conservatives making astute political observations about Santorum and his socially conservative views, either the liberals have had a recruiting boon or there’s something to the scrutiny Santorum is getting that goes beyond ideology or religious bigotry. Santorum isn’t suffering for his faith. He’s being held accountable for what he says.
And Ed Kilgore adds this:
The answer, of course, is that Mitt Romney is not on record suggesting that his campaign is part of God’s Own Resistance to the takeover of America by Satan, or that 45 million mainline Protestants have gone over to Satan’s side in that battle, or that the President of the United States is trying to abolish Christianity in the pursuit of a secularist “phony theology.”
Nope, only Santorum is saying that, and on Ash Wednesday, in the desert, at the beginning of Lent, he eased up on that a bit – as Lent is a time for prayer and fasting and deep contemplation, and a time for giving up what is easy and fun, at least for a time. The debate was not about Satan. Everyone calm down.
But in forty days all bets are off again. Then it will be back to worrying about the takeover of America by Satan – or not. Santorum doesn’t yet have a lock on the nomination. Prayer and fasting and deep contemplation can be useful. With no more debates there’s time to step back and look at what has been going on here, and try something else. After all “The Donald” has pointed out, repeatedly, that he himself is far and away the smartest and most respected and most admired man in America today, and that everyone simply knows this is true. And it seems he may put that to the test – Trump May Reconsider Presidential Bid – which may or may not prove something about Satan.
But at least the Republican primary debates are over. America is glad to give up those for Lent.