Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) has served in the United States Senate since 1994. The third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Santorum is running for re-election in a tight race against Democratic candidate Bob Casey Jr., Pennsylvania’s state treasurer and son of former governor Bob Casey. The two men are both Catholics and both oppose abortion. A political conservative, Santorum took an active role in the right-to-die case involving Terri Schiavo, and opposes same-sex marriage. Beliefnet’s Washington editor David Kuo spoke with Sen. Santorum earlier this fall about his faith, his agenda, and his political future.

How is it, personally and spiritually, to be involved in what is arguably the country’s highest-profile Senate race?

I feel like I'm in a very serious battle, but I've got lots of positive things to focus on--we're out there speaking the truth, certainly from my perspective, not backing down from what I believe in or why I believe it.

I'm giving speeches that are certainly not milquetoast, and I'm talking about what I believe are important things for the future of the country. I'm in the biggest Senate race in the country, one that's intensely covered, with the opportunity to influence the direction of this country on a variety of different fronts which I think happen to be very important to the future of this country. So, I look at that as a privilege and with this privilege comes a lot of downsides. But you just got to keep plugging away and hope that with the work that you're doing and the networks that you put together, that you're able to touch the hearts and minds of people about, again, a lot of very important issues.

Is politics getting nastier?

Oh, without question. It's not just getting nastier--politics has always had its nasty side. It's not just nasty on the level of policy, and you're criticizing your beliefs or twisting and demeaning your beliefs, it's also that there's a very strong personal edge to it. I mean, there's a demonization that says if you believe certain things you are personally just a very bad person, or a very evil person. And there's that constant demonization for your beliefs.

How in the midst of this do you, quoting Jesus, “Love your” opponent? How do you love what must sometimes feel like the “enemy”?

One of the things that we do every night when we say prayers as a family is we pray for my opponent and for his family. We know they're going through a very difficult time, this is not easy on anybody.

And while, again, I may not agree with what he wants to do or the tactics he uses or the things that he says, it is our obligation as believers to--as the Lord said, you've got to love your enemies.

Again, not that I see him as an enemy, but you've got to love people that you don't agree with, love people that you don't quote “love,” and you've got to pray for them and wish them, just like you wish everyone, the opportunity for everlasting life.

One of the things that amazed me during my work in the White House was that you were the only Republican in the U. S. Senate to fight for President Bush’s “compassion” agenda.  What is it that motivated you?

My faith has influenced me greatly and compels me to take certain stands on certain issues. That's who I am as a person, and you should not divorce that from your public life. You have an obligation to bring the authentic you, what you believe is right and just, to the marketplace, and apply it in a civil context.

No one's suggesting that you apply them in a sectarian context, but you do it in a civil context but the motivations, I think if they're authentically through religion, are certainly appropriate to have those motivations to drive you. And that is the case when it comes to the “compassion agenda.”

I mean, the motivation comes from the education and the training that I received as a young Catholic boy growing up--from my parents to the nuns, the dreaded nuns, at a Catholic grade school, and on since. From civic organizations within the church and volunteer organizations, there was always a focus on the poor and our biblical obligation to serve the poor.

I don’t see government as the servant, but I see government as being in a position to facilitate more individuals and communities and groups, fellowships, to facilitate them to do their job in meeting the needs of the poor, and that there are some things beyond the needs of the community where the government does need to play a role.

What, in your fight on the compassionate conservative front, are you most proud of? What's been the biggest disappointment?

Well, the thing I'm most proud of is the thing that probably has had the greatest impact in this country, and that is the welfare reform bill of '96. At the heart of the ’96 welfare reform, was a belief in the power and the ability of every  person to achieve and to realize success in his or her life, and that if we don't have those expectations, we don't have those beliefs and we don't set those expectations, and we simply see people as disabled because of their poverty, or disabled because of their lack of education, disabled because of their family situation, disabled because of the community they live in, then we will be constantly providing benefits to the disabled who I believe are perfectly capable and, in fact, want to overcome their disability.

And that to me was really the linchpin that we renewed people's faith in themselves, because government wasn't going to be there to be the caregiver, but was there to be the facilitator and the encourager for them to reach their full human potential.

How about the disappointments?

Oh, there's lots of disappointments. I'm a great believer in the power of faith and the power of faith-based organizations. And the disappointments come because we have not fully embraced what I would consider to be the most important aspect of the Compassion Agenda: that the government would put incentives in place to have faith and faith-based institutions play a more vital and critical role in taking care of those who are less fortunate in our society.

We have the President's faith-based program. I think the President cares a lot about it. I am not too sure how many down the chain of command do. And here in the Congress, I can tell you as we try to do things to try to bolster the faith communities and try to give them hiring protections, to try to give them more favorable tax treatment, just the opposite comes out of people in this Congress and in my party, who go after non-profit organizations, who go after tax cuts for businesses before they go after incentives to give to charities because tax cuts for business means the economy's going to be strong and everybody's going to be okay.

Well, not everybody's going to be okay. One of my favorite lines is to play off a Kennedy line, which is that, “Rising tides lift all boats, unless your boat has a hole.” If you boat has a hole, a rising tide means you're just in deeper water and in a more perilous situation.

So, I would suggest that we need to get a better grip here in the Congress generally but on our [Republican] side in particular, and grab onto this belief that I think we all have, but we're not willing to make the sacrifices and set priorities to make those come to reality.

Why do you think that, on the Republican side, for instance, there hasn't been a greater commitment to fighting for compassionate conservatism or fighting for the poor?

I would say probably some of it is ideological. They just don't like government programs or government dealing in this area, and some believe that it's not the responsibility of the federal government to do it.

Others have higher priorities, and they may believe it but, when push comes to shove, there's a more pressing priority and these things always get sort of shoved back. And for some it's a political calculus.

Look at the voting. A lot of folks who are affected by these policies are not the base of the Republican party, and people who pay the death tax [inheritance tax] are. And so there's a political calculation that I think runs into this that is not particularly attractive in my opinion but, nevertheless, it's a reality of the situation that that's certainly a part of the calculus here.

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