“PHONY THEOLOGY”: an arrogant judgment needing response

I waited several days to be sure I wasn’t just reacting emotionally.   But the arrogance of the comment by Rick Santorum, the leading vote-getter (for now) in the Republican Party’s attempt to identify its candidate for the Presidential election, won’t let me delay any longer.  I’ve had to sort out whether I’m responding as a blogger who is attempting to highlight important moments in American politics, or whether I’m just incensed as one of those people on the wrong end of his comments.   I hope I’m both.

In a speech at Ave Maria College in Florida, an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic institution created by Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, Santorum declared that President Obama is a spokesperson for mainline Protestantism, and is, therefore, a follower of a “phony theology.”

Just to be clear, “mainline Protestantism” is commonly understood to be inhabited by Presbyterians,  Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ,  members of the Reformed Church in America and members of a number of smaller denominations, including a sizable number of  Black Churches.  That accounts for  far more than 20 million members.   It is commonly recognized as the body of Christians who represented the vast majority of founders of this nation and those who were leaders in establishing (for better or for worse)  many of the economic, political, social, educational,  and other commonly recognized institutions of this country. Regardless of your feelings about the effectiveness of those institutions, it is clear that this body of people played (and continue to play) a vital role in the creation of this nation.

The theology of mainline Protestantism is based upon belief in Jesus Christ, scholarly biblical principles, compassion for those in need, justice, and a strong belief in God’s desire and ability to forgive those who stray.  Mainline Protestant congregations tend to be diverse in their racial, ethnic, gender and social makeup, including leadership in the form of ordained clergy.  They also represent a spectrum of belief, ranging from conservative to liberal. The honoring of difference in interpretation and understanding of faith stances is a primary principle of mainline Protestant thinking.

Santorum’s identification of mainline Protestant theology as being “phony” is an arrogant, biased, and politically convenient slur, one not commonly heard these days.   It stems from his ultra-conservative understanding of what is meant by Roman Catholic theology, a view not shared by most thinking Roman Catholics.   Even those who might take issue with some of the tenets of mainline Protestant thought would stop short of calling it “phony.”   I’m trying to picture what it would be like if a Presbyterian candidate were to label Roman Catholicism as “phony theology” simply because she rejected the basic beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.  Or if a Lutheran candidate were to describe Judaism as being “phony theology“.  Would those comments be passed off as “slips of the tongue” or “insignificant political rhetoric?”

But mainline Protestant theology respects a variety of opinions, even those which are diametrically opposed to its own.  Therefore, the outcry has been muted for the most part.  But Mr. Santorum’s comment cannot be ignored for long.   It is disrespectful and arrogant, undeserving of a man in his position.  I’m sure it titillated the ears of the ultra-conservative faculty and student body at Ave Maria.  And it fed into the emerging ultra-conservative base of the Republican Party.   But I can’t believe that Independents, moderate Republicans  and faltering Democrats could be embracing of such a blatantly prejudiced and arrogant pronouncement.  If this is not a nail in his political coffin, it should be.  If we fail to reject his comment, shame on us.

Photo Credit: AP

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