Santorum’s Catholicism is the new ‘redneck’ religion

In our times the sacred mysteries abound. “Would you like to become Catholic, Johnny?” Don Rickles once asked Johnny Carson. “It might mean a free drink for you.” Once again we have entered an Age of “Plastic Jesus” (Janis Joplin’s phrase); an age of conspicuous piety like that coarsely displayed in the '50s by “flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark,” on the Buick dashboard. Of which Bob Dylan said, when he first rose to moment, “It's easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred.”

And we enter today a phase of acrimony between North and South, extended now to red and blue states, and it is starting to wear a Catholic mask. I’m beginning to long for the days when the South was anti-Catholic and would pillory guys like Rick Santorum. Historian Dan Carter well describes the origins of red and blue in his provocative and brilliant book, Politics of Rage, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, a political biography of George Wallace.

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Carter wrote that the entire Wallace rise and fall was a reaction to the new initiatives of the culture of the 1960s, of the Freedom Riders in the South, the integration decision of Brown v. the Board of Education, the hippies and so on.

“Journalists might greet this growing counterculture with curiosity, even approval. But Wallace knew — instinctively, intuitively — that tens of millions Americans despised the civil rights agitators, the anti-war demonstrators, the sexual exhibitionists as symbols of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family and country.”

Wallace invoked images of a nation in crisis, Carter wrote, a country in which thugs roamed the streets with impunity, anti-war demonstrators embraced the hated communist Viet Cong and brazen youth flaunted their taste for “dirty” books and movies. “And while America disintegrated, cowardly politicians, bureaucrats and distant federal judges capitulated to these loathsome forces."

Somehow, after Ronald Reagan, Catholicism somehow seemed a better national fit for the Wallace movement: Picture Alabama’s four-term Gov. George Wallace between 1963 and 1987 as a Catholic and you get Rick Santorum.

The obvious disingenuousness and base politicization of the sacred here has had the interesting effect of giving legitimacy to the Mormon candidates, Romney and Jon Huntsman, who keep their religion to themselves, much as Tip O’Neill kept his Catholicism to himself. And Sarah Palin, who says that growing up they chose the church “closest to their house,” has an earthy authenticity.