The Frontal Cortex

In Defense of Rick Santorum

If the polls are accurate, Senator Rick Santorum is about to lose his re-election bid. That’s a good thing. Santorum is a bad cliche of the culture wars, a powerful politician who actually believes that the earth is 6,000 years old, that abortion is tantamount to murder and the Catholic church scandal began in Massachusetts because Boston is a “liberal bastion”. In recent months, he’s also gotten rather deranged on the topic of foreign policy, arguing that what we need is more pre-ememptive action against Iran, because our aggressive war in Iraq worked out so well.

And yet, when Rick Santorum loses on November 9th, the Senate will also lose one of its most persistent and creative voices on the topic of poverty. As David Brooks noted in his column yesterday:

There has been at least one constant in Washington over the past 12 years: almost every time a serious piece of antipoverty legislation surfaces in Congress, Rick Santorum is there playing a leadership role.

In the mid-1990s, he was a floor manager for welfare reform, the most successful piece of domestic legislation of the past 10 years. He then helped found the Renewal Alliance to help charitable groups with funding and parents with flextime legislation.

More recently, he has pushed through a stream of legislation to help the underprivileged, often with Democratic partners. With Dick Durbin and Joe Biden, Santorum has sponsored a series of laws to fight global AIDS and offer third world debt relief. With Chuck Schumer and Harold Ford, he’s pushed to offer savings accounts to children from low-income families. With John Kerry, he’s proposed homeownership tax credits. With Chris Dodd, he backed legislation authorizing $860 million for autism research. With Joe Lieberman he pushed legislation to reward savings by low-income families.

In addition, he’s issued a torrent of proposals, many of which have become law: efforts to fight tuberculosis; to provide assistance to orphans and vulnerable children in developing countries; to provide housing for people with AIDS; to increase funding for Social Services Block Grants and organizations like Healthy Start and the Children’s Aid Society; to finance community health centers; to combat genocide in Sudan.

I’m not sure it’s possible to disentangle Santorum’s noxious culture war rhetoric from his good deeds on anti-poverty issues. In other words, I don’t think we can get the Sudan Santorum without the stem cell Santorum. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to acknowledge both sides of the man, to see his political intentions as both noble and horribly misguided. When we demonize our opponents without recognizing their best intentions, we lapse into the same culture war dichotomies that we are supposed to deplore.

In general, Scienceblogs is the anti-religious blogs. We are a bunch of rabid atheists and tepid agnostics, a theological position that aligns us with the 10 percent of the population that believes in natural selection but not angels. We can go ahead and laugh at the other 90 percent, mock their Sunday rituals and deplore their grip on the biological facts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: most of the population could use a primer in evolutionary theory. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge their faith.

I live in a small city. It’s too small to have a taxpayer financed homeless shelter, but big enough to have a few dozen homeless people. Who fills the void? The churches. When the nights get cold, many of the churches here open their doors. Volunteers spend the night, and follow the most worthy command of the New Testament: to help the meek. Some of these churches have a liberal bent, and some of them don’t. Some of the same pastors who help take care of the homeless probably give sermons advocating intelligent design.

As biologists, we know that this is how human nature operates. Every individual is a complex stew of alleles and motives; nobody is always anything. We should apply the same sense of nuance and subtlety to the culture wars that we apply to our biolgical subjects. Rick Santorum has said many things I deplore. I disagree with him on just about every political issue. But the same faith that inspires his tirades against stem cells also inspires his actions on poverty. I’m a pragmatist. Like E.O. Wilson, I believe that we should spend less time worrying about our beliefs, and more time worrying about our actions. So I hope Rick Santorum loses; but I hope his replacement will do as much for the impoverished as he has.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    October 30, 2006

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. It is nice to be reminded that even bad guys have good sides, and your E O Wilson quote is helpful.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    October 30, 2006

    We can go ahead and laugh at the other 90 percent, mock their Sunday rituals and deplore their grip on the biological facts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: most of the population could use a primer in evolutionary theory. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge their faith.

    The rest of that was a great setup for the last sentence.

    “Not being an atheist” is not synonymous with “doesn’t accept evolution.” Yes, the most loud and strident of the religouis not only fit both definitions, but also argue that the two are equated… but there are a lot of the religious out there who have no trouble with both evolution and still having some sort of religious faith. By both implicitly and implicitly saying “religion is bad because you guys can’t accept evolution,” you’re attacking religion on the wrong grounds.

    I’m not questioning your right to mock religion on your blog — of course you have that right. And I’m 100% with you in mocking creationists and supporting the scientific evidence for evolution, an old Earth, the Big Bang, etc. etc. etc. However, despite the fact that I usually get dogpiled after I do it, every so often I feel the need to point out to somebody on scienceblogs that they are making a cariacature of religion when they equation religion and all of creationism, and that dismissing all of the religious on those grounds is tantamount to anti-evolution types saying, “hey, Darwinism led to social Darwinism, which was evil, but because of the name, that’s what all athiestic scientists believe.” (Which, of course, was absurd.)

    -Rob

  3. #3 TheFallibleFiend
    October 30, 2006

    “Who fills the void? The churches.”
    Excellent observation. There’s a LOT more that could be said here, though you may not agree with all of it.

    Religious people do these sorts of things, not just because its what’s God wants them to do, but also because they are decent people.

    I worry that we are too eager to replace religion with nothing. It’s not that nihilism or unethical behavior is a necessary byproduct of atheism. It’s that if you have atheism, you need some sort of ethical education to prevent nihilism or unethical behavior.

    The response of most atheists is no response, “Are you telling me that atheists can’t be moral?” Of course that’s not a conclusion. But moreover it misses the point. It takes more to practicing logical than just saying, “I’m logical.” It takes more to teaching ethics than just saying, “See, I’m ethical.”

    We need structures in place in society to impart values. Religion does a good job at this, but the values aren’t necessarily values that most atheists hold. We might call it a flimsy solution, because in addition to the good stuff , there’s a bunch of irrational and stupid stuff. But Nature doesn’t care whether it’s a good solution or a flimsy solution – only that it’s better than no solution at all. And the response of many atheists is, “Well, *I’m* an atheist and *I’m* more ethical than most religious people I know!” GOOD FOR YOU! But that doesn’t translate to 6 billion people (or even one other person) waking up, deciding that believing in God is ridiculous, and suddenly developing a sense of ethics overnight.

  4. #4 Rob Ray
    October 31, 2006

    one of the most thought-provoking things i’ve read in a while.

    good show.

  5. #5 istanbul
    May 6, 2009

    yes one of the most thought-provoking things i’ve read in a while.

    good show