Santorum and 'phony theology'

At first, it seemed as if Rick Santorum was questioning President Barack Obama's religious faith. Now, it appears that what he meant was to question the faith of all Americans who believe that clean water, air and land is in the public interest.

For someone running for secular office, the former Pennsylvania senator has expressed a lot of thoughts about Catholicism, Christianity and religion in general, but even many of his supporters must have been surprised when he denounced President Obama as embracing a "phony theology" during a recent campaign appearance in Ohio. A spokesman explained that Mr. Santorum believes the president to be Christian but that his political ideology was discredited because it would deny individual rights in favor of government control.

But wait, that wasn't it at all. The explanation provided by the candidate himself later was that he wasn't talking about Mr. Obama's Christianity or vague generalities about Big Brother but specifically about "radical" environmental policy. "We're not here to serve the Earth. That is not the objective. Man is the objective," he told a CBS interviewer.

What's surprising about Mr. Santorum's view is that he falls back on the absurd stereotype of environmentalists as "tree-huggers" protesting some desirable road or development in order to save the habitat of an obscure species of plant or reptile, no matter what the impact on people. Certainly, protests over endangered species sometimes take place, but the kind of environmental agenda Mr. Obama has pursued has been far more about protecting and preserving human health.

Whether it involves reducing the mercury coming out of coal-fired power plants, increasing the fuel efficiency of cars or encouraging green energy, the president has consistently reflected a very human-centered approach to public policy. At the core of each issue is a concern over the health and welfare of U.S. residents.

Take climate change, a favorite whipping boy of conservatives who prefer to deny the science that's found that the alarming rise in greenhouse gases is raising global temperatures. Those who think the U.S. and other nations need to limit emissions aren't espousing a "theology" but a desire to avoid disaster -- rising sea levels, intense heat waves and storms, the acidification of oceans, greater prevalence of disease, loss of farm land, and social upheaval. Studies have suggested hundreds of millions of people would be adversely affected.

Similarly, decisions over energy, another favorite topic of Republicans running for the White House, don't come down to a question of being pro-jobs or anti-jobs but of which jobs one favors, those associated with highly polluting fossil fuel or those made possible by sustainable resources like solar, wind and geothermal power. Even the act of preserving endangered species has vital self-preservation implications for the rest of us -- not only because of their potential value for producing medicines or other useful products one day but because a loss of biodiversity could be disastrous for the ecosystem of which human beings are a part.

It was one thing for Mr. Santorum to spout such nonsense when he was in the back bench of the Republican primary race, but, against all odds, he is now leading the pack. While Mitt Romney still has more delegates pledged to support him and is far better financed, Mr. Santorum's surprising recent victories have helped him rise quickly in the polls -- including in the always-critical Midwestern states of Ohio and Michigan.

Do most Americans find Mr. Obama's environmental views radical? Hardly. According to numerous polls, a majority of the country still favors clean air, water and land. Even on the controversial topic of climate change, about two-thirds of U.S. residents believe rising temperatures pose a problem, according to a poll released two months ago by the Pew Research Center.

If Mr. Santorum doesn't temper his extreme rhetoric, he could find that his recent rise in the polls is as fleeting as it was for his many predecessors at the head of the GOP field during this volatile primary season.

If not his anti-environmental views, perhaps what will sink Mr. Santorum is his opposition to prenatal testing (because it might lead women to favor an abortion) or his opinion that contraception is a "license to do things," or his generally scolding view of human behavior. If the GOP wants someone who can beat Mr. Obama in the fall, it needs a candidate who can attract Democrats and independent voters. If Mr. Santorum keeps pushing his far-right social agenda, it's hard to believe he will be that man.

-- The Baltimore Sun