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Why Senator Santonarola Can't Help Himself

Rick Santorum spent much of last week saying that the media should stop pigeon-holing him as a social-issues culture warrior. Then he spent the weekend saying a whole lot of things that made him sound like ... a social-issues culture warrior. The highlights:

1. At a Tea Party event in Columbus, Santorum said that President Obama is pushing an environmental agenda that is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.” Santorum later insisted that this was not meant to question Obama’s Christianity—“If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.” And indeed, the uproar over the comments seems misplaced—it appears that Santorum was not wading into Obama-as-Muslim territory but simply trafficking in standard arch-conservative fare about godless liberal environmentalists. (He doubled down later by charging that environmentalists “elevate Earth above man.”) But he did not help himself by bringing in the t-word. Why not leave it at “ideology” instead? Especially given that Santorum’s Savonarola-esque theological views were already back in the news with MSNBC’s report of Santorum’s 2008 comments about main-line Protestantism being “gone from the world of Christianity.

2. At a Christian Alliance luncheon in Columbus, Santorum said that the government’s requirement that health insurance cover pre-natal testing amounted to government promotion of abortions. “One of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America. Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.” This is obviously a matter close to the heart for Santorum, whose 3-year-old daughter Bella was born with Trisomy 18. But coming in the midst of all the Republican talk against birth control and for mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking’s not exactly likely to minimize the notion of Santorum as modern woman’s worst nightmare.

3. At a megachurch in Georgia last night, Santorum not-so-obliquely compared the threat Barack Obama posed to the country to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. “Your country needs you. It’s not as clear a challenge. Obviously, World War II was pretty obvious. At some point, they knew. But remember, the Greatest Generation, for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness, where our closest ally, Britain, was being bombed and leveled, while Japan was spreading its cancer all throughout Southeast Asia. America sat from 1940, when France fell, to December of ’41, and did almost nothing. Why? Because we’re a hopeful people. We think, ‘Well, you know, he’ll get better. You know, he’s a nice guy. I mean, it won’t be near as bad as what we think. This’ll be okay.’ Oh yeah, maybe he’s not the best guy, and after a while, you found out things about this guy over in Europe, and he’s not so good of a guy after all.”

Such remarks confound the pundits, who cannot fathom why Santorum would keep veering off a pre-Michigan script that that was supposed to be geared toward the economy, manufacturing in particular. What this reflects, though, is a misconception grounded in our lack of experience with true political ideologues. We talk a lot these days about Washington having been overtaken by conservative ideologues, but this is an exaggeration. Many of those glibly parroting right-wing ideology these days—say, Eric Cantor—are mere opportunists. But Rick Santorum is a rare breed—a bona fide ideologue with a fixed and coherent world view. He can’t just switch some button and turn off the social stuff and talk jobs instead. It’s all woven together. “I'm not going to go out and lay out an agenda about how we're going to transform people's hearts,” he said today. “But I will talk about it.”

The contrast with Mitt Romney, the man who is all buttons and switches, couldn’t be any greater. In The Real Romney, the new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, Romney’s longtime aide Eric Fehrnstrom is quoted saying that Romney is “not a very notional leader. He is more interested in data and what the data mean.” The authors correctly take this as a fairly revealing statement, an acknowledgment that Romney lacks much in the way of guiding ideas, theories, philosophy. Whereas Santorum is all about notions, particularly one very big one: we’re going downhill fast, in more ways than one, and can be saved only by a theology—the non-phony one.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis.