Off the Cuff

Rick Santorum is behaving very strangely of late. He’s never been a politician afraid to speak his mind, but he seems to have gone off the deep end with his new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. It takes extreme positions on our most sensitive social problems; Santorum not only thinks that abortion is wrong, but also believes in the outrageous concept that two-parent households with both a mother and father are better than ones with a single parent. He thinks that God created the universe, and that our public schools are a mess. Can you believe he’s actually saying these things? In today’s politically correct world, he is undoubtedly offending at least half the people in Pennsylvania …. which is why I’m actually beginning to like him.    

Now, it so happens that I don’t agree with Senator Santorum on many issues. Take abortion, that great litmus test for both liberals and conservatives: While the senator has complete faith he has his finger on the moral truth, I’m more of an agnostic. But it frustrates me that those in the public eye — especially politicians — are afraid to say what they believe about almost everything. Free speech has become a thing of the past. Santorum, however, seems to be going in the other direction:

“It is an open-and-shut case: The best place for kids to grow up is with a happily married mom and dad, and the more of these families there are in a community, the better it is for everyone.” That’s the sort of statement that liberals read as a thinly veiled critique of, among other things, gay marriage. Santorum, however, is only too happy to rip the veil aside: “What happens to a society that disconnects marriage from babies … ? The connection has already been strained by the consequences of children being born out of wedlock and the damage wrought by our divorce culture. Same-sex marriage severs this connection completely.” And here’s how he’s gaining votes from working moms: “What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.”

You can jump up and down all you want and say Santorum is pandering to a far-right political base (maybe a national one as he looks to the ’08 presidential election). Or that some of his ideas are half-baked. But that misses the point. At the moment, he is beginning a reelection campaign against Bob Casey, the state treasurer who’s got not only name recognition, but a lead in the polls. Santorum isn’t doing himself any favors statewide — and especially not in the socially moderate Philadelphia suburbs he needs to woo — by aligning himself even further right. But as Franklin & Marshall’s Terry Madonna, a longtime political analyst who has known Santorum for years, told me, “I think he’s slowly reaching the conclusion that it’s not politics that matter, but culture, and as a U.S. senator, he’s in a unique position to say what he thinks is wrong with society.” That’s what is refreshing, and so sorely lacking from our political discourse: a U.S. senator who seems determined to speak his heart and mind.

At a time when everyone seems to agree that our world has become a trickier place to navigate — from raising children to coming to grips with terrorism — it’s increasingly important that we face up to our problems. This isn’t to say that Rick Santorum is right in his sometimes extreme-sounding views on our cultural malaise. But at least he has views. And at least he’s willing to tell us what they are. It’s pathetic that most public figures are afraid to speak their minds. Or that Santorum speaking his might end up costing him the platform to do it.