Rick Santorum’s Idea of Freedom: Enforcing Catholic Sexual Morality

His Iowa boost has thrown into high relief his hunger for more government control of Americans’ lives.

Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

Speaking to NPR in 2005, Rick Santorum criticized fellow Republicans who were disinclined to meddle in Americans’ private lives. “They took a more Goldwaterish libertarian point of view when it comes to the interaction of government in people’s lives, and I think to the detriment of the country,” he said. Santorum, by contrast, has always been resolutely anti-individualist, denouncing, in another interview, “this whole idea of personal autonomy.”

It’s long been clear that a large part of the Tea Party was simply the religious right rebranded. For all the movement’s talk of liberty, many in it hungered for more government control of the private lives of Americans—especially American women. Santorum’s rise, though, has thrown the movement’s strain of social authoritarianism into especially high relief. According to a CNN entrance poll, he won a plurality of Iowa caucus-goers who described themselves as strong supporters of the Tea Party movement, 30 percent, compared to 17 percent for Newt Gingrich and 16 percent for Ron Paul. This is revealing, and not just because Santorum is extremely socially conservative—after all, Paul is too. What makes Santorum unique is his desire to use government power to enforce his version of Catholic sexual morality.

This goes far beyond abortion. “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country,” he said last year in a video interview with the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts. “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s OK, contraception is OK.’ It’s not OK. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Included in this is birth control used by married couples. Sex, he said, is “supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal and unitive, but also procreative.” Most presidents don’t talk about such things, he said, but “these are important public policy issues. They have profound impact on the health of our society.”

Santorum also wants the government to make it more difficult for people to get divorced. “Divorce is simply far too easy to get in this country,” he wrote in his 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. “States should put in braking mechanisms for couples who have children under the age of 18. This means a mandatory waiting period and mandatory counseling before a divorce is granted.”

He has argued that the government should be able to prohibit both gay sex and adultery. In 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s anti-sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, he told the Associated Press that such laws are “there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

This says it all: Santorum objects to the notion that “you have the right to consensual sex within your home.” By elevating a person so hostile to individual rights, Iowa voters have actually done us all a weird sort of favor. They’ve exposed, in the starkest possible way, what a large part of the conservative movement means by freedom. It’s not the freedom to live as one chooses. It’s the freedom to impose one’s morality on others.