The Illinois GOP Primary: Romney’s Juggernaut Versus Evangelical Catholic Rick Santorum
Mitt Romney looks to be crusing towards a substantial victory in tomorrow's GOP primary (motto: "this time, it matters"). Chicago expat Nate Silver gives Romney a 95 percent chance of victory, with an estimated 13-point margin of victory over Rick Santorum. Romney certainly comes in with momentum; polls have been heading in his direction in the past couple weeks (had the primary been held in October, Hermain Cain might have had a chance). He's also got the advantage over Santorum in favorability ratings—a modest 38 percent to 35 percent lead over Rick Santorum. While 38 percent favorable isn't exactly good news for Romney, being the least worst option has given him a considerable lead outside of the Deep South.
In Salon, Joan Walsh takes a look at Santorum's alma mater, suburban Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, and why the former Senator has been quiet about his Illinois roots. It's not just that northern Illinois is Romney country; it's also that Catholics really don't much like the devout Catholic candidate:
One of the nominal “mysteries” of the 2012 GOP primaries is why ultra-Catholic Rick Santorum has lost the Catholic vote to Mormon Mitt Romney in almost every primary, while cleaning up among Protestant evangelicals. It’s possible some of it reflects evangelicals’ distaste for Mormonism. But it’s also possible it reflects Catholics’ distaste for Santorum.
Walsh quotes Brian Herman, a Carmel graduate himself, writing in TribLocal. Stumping in advance of the primary, Santorum has been courting his base, not his religious bretheren:
Yet Santorum is avoiding the Salvi athletic center, the city of Mundelein and all of Lake County, which is home to one of the largest concentrations of GOP voters in the state. Instead, he chose to campaign in suburban Cook County at Christian Liberty Academy, which is an evangelical fundamentalist Christian school founded on such values as a literal interpretation of the Bible, adherence to “God’s law” over man’s and outright opposition to all public education.
I find Herman's explanation spot-on:
All of this is not to characterize Santorum as a “bad Catholic” and certainly not to challenge the way he has personally lived his faith, which in some respects is admirable. Rather, the bottom line is that Rick Santorum, the politician, has constructed his own independent theology, piecing together the most electorally beneficial elements of Catholicism, ignoring or deriding its other tenets and shrouding it all in rhetoric that frequently runs counter to the academic rigor and values central to the Carmel High School experience.
Herman's personal take on Santorum's political handing of Catholic tenents aside, this seems to capture Santorum's "evangelical Catholicism," which Herman dismisses as "a misleading euphemism that makes his political pandering appear virtuous." But the heart of the evangelical Protestant experience in America has been picking and choosing elements of Christianity—and, emerging as it did first from the frontier and later from rural America, it's long contained an anti-intellectual strain that developed in the absence of social networks and educational infrastructure that's defined so much of Catholicism throughout its history. "Evangelical Catholicism" seems like a good term to capture the Santorum phenomenon.
Which is why Santorum's upset victories down south came as no surprise to me. I hadn't followed the polling, I just assumed he was going to win because of his inherent appeal to evangelicals and evangelical Southern culture. Here in Illinois, it'll cost him, and unless he can shoot the moon with a brokered convention, it'll end up being a curiosity of political history. Whether it'll vanish like so much pandering or whether it says something about 21st century American Catholicism is actually the most interesting thing about Santorum's campaign.
Speaking of which: his appearance at the Christian Liberty Academy was protested by two men who interrupted the speech... then kissed (via Digby). In response, the crowd started chanting "USA." Just another day at the races:
Photograph: markn3tel (CC by 2.0)