Rick Santorum’s Phony Marriage Attack on Obama

The Pennsylvania conservative keeps bashing Obama for undermining the institution of marriage. Michelle Goldberg on what Rick gets wrong.

David Goldman / AP Photo

As he campaigns in South Carolina, Rick Santorum keeps accusing the Obama administration of subverting marriage and family. “This administration is doing things to undermine the very structure of society,” he said at a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally on Monday. His primary example of this has been regulations ostensibly imposed on a marriage promotion program run by Elayne Bennett, wife of Reagan administration official and religious-right favorite Bill Bennett.

As Santorum put it at a prayer breakfast Sunday morning, “The Obama administration has come down with regulations now for anyone who receives funds … from the federal government, and they have told them that they can no longer teach marriage. They can no longer tell these girls that it’s better to get married than not to get married.” He repeated this argument at the last Republican debate. Each time he made it, he was either mistaken or he was lying.

On Tuesday, Elayne Bennett was finally forced to correct the record. In fact, Bennett’s foundation is currently getting federal funds through the government’s Healthy Marriage grant program to teach about, well, healthy marriage. “Marriage and the benefits of marriage continued to be an integral part of the curriculum,” she said in a statement to Students in the program, she wrote, are taught “Conflict Resolution skills, Communication skills, Abuse Prevention skills, Budgeting and Financial skills.” (The capitalizations are hers.)

As it happens, Obama has been a longtime champion of government programs to strengthen marriages among poor people. “[P]reliminary research shows that marriage education workshops can make a real difference in helping married couples and in encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a more lasting bond,” he wrote in The Audacity of Hope. “Expanding access to such services to low-income couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement, medical coverage, and other services already available, should be something everybody can agree on.”

Like others on the right, though, Santorum can’t take yes for an answer. And so he has twisted changes to sex-education funding into a malign conspiracy against wedlock.

It’s true that the Obama administration has altered the policy around Healthy Marriage grants, which were started by the Bush administration, so that recipients can no longer use the funding to teach abstinence. This makes sense on two levels. First, abstinence-only education has been shown, again and again, to be ineffective. A Columbia University study found that teenagers who take virginity pledges, a crucial part of many abstinence programs, are actually more likely to get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection, because when they have sex they’re less likely to use condoms. Furthermore, for those thinking about marriage, or even about improving a cohabiting relationship, abstinence is irrelevant. According to, Bennett still teaches abstinence to middle- school students, though she doesn’t get federal funds to do it.

If there’s a scandal here, it’s that Bennett is getting any government money at all. After all, another grant the Best Friends Foundation received during the Bush administration was the subject of a serious controversy. As ABC News reported in 2008, “An organization that promotes sexual abstinence for teens received a federal grant of over a million dollars, twice what it had requested, despite the skepticism Department of Justice staffers had about the group and the fact that it refused to participate in a congressionally mandated study.” Evaluators ranked Best Friends 53rd out of 104 competing organizations. So why did it win out? “Current and former staffers say it was because of Best Friends' powerful president and founder, Elayne Bennett,” said ABC. (Asked by the network about the DOJ employees’ skepticism, Bennett said: “They say that others are playing politics. But they are doing this because of politics. They don’t like the politics of our group and others.”)

Under Obama, there’s been a dramatic reduction in such unearned subsidies to religious conservatives. Applicants for funds from the president’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative have to use curricula that have been shown to be both honest and effective. Contrary to Santorum’s lurid fantasies, these programs don’t encourage kids to be promiscuous. “The programs that can be funded include and emphasize abstinence,” says Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a group that promotes comprehensive sex education. “They also include information about contraception at the appropriate stage of young people’s development. The programs that provide both have a better impact even in helping young people delay sexual initiation.” As she notes, 70 percent of teenagers are sexually active by the time they finish high school. “They need information,” she says. Programs like Bennett’s that don’t provide it won’t qualify for these funds. This, according to Santorum, threatens “the very structure of society.”

Ultimately, this is a debate about contraception and sex education, not marriage. But that’s not a debate Santorum is interesting in having, because whenever he talks about birth control, he ends up a laughing stock. And so, as he often does, he engages in prurient fantasies about the perversity of his opponents. Such dishonesty, whether willful or not, bespeaks a genuinely dirty mind.