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Exclusive: Santorum outlines campaign vision, says religion is essential to democracy
By Kathryn Jean Lopez
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) announces he is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. president at the Somerset County courthouse. (Jeff Swensen/Getty News Images/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) announces he is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. president at the Somerset County courthouse. (Jeff Swensen/Getty News Images/Getty Images)

.- Introduced by his wife Karen and joined on stage by his seven children, former Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum officially launched his campaign for president on June 8 at a rally held at the Somerset, Pa. County Courthouse.

“I believe now, that Americans now are not looking for someone they can believe in,” Santorum said referring to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Change You Can Believe In.”

Instead, Santorum said, today voters are “looking for a president who believes in them.”

Santorum added: “I'm ready to lead. I'm ready to do what has to be done for the next generation, with the courage to fight for freedom, with the courage to fight for America.”

Santorum, 53, is currently one of two Catholics to enter the race to be the country’s next president. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and Catholic convert, announced his run last month.

He told the crowd of several hundred supporters that he chose the spot to announce his campaign because it was near where his grandfather Pietro worked as a coal miner after emigrating from Italy in 1927.

Somerset is also not far from where a hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on its way to Washington, D.C., during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The spot was thus symbolic of key themes Santorum hopes to highlight in his bid for the presidency – the need to restore traditional American values and economic competitiveness, and the need for a strong defense against the threats of America’s enemies.

The former two-term senator was once the third-ranking Republican in the Senate’s leadership. He lost his seat in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey.

But in an exclusive interview with National Review Online editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez conducted for Catholic News Agency, he said, “You learn more from loss than from success.”

Santorum said that he is ready to lead and that the voters are ready for a candidate who believes in God and the importance of religion to American democracy.

“Americans want our leaders to have a reliance on God …” he said. “We want leaders who understand that faith is essential to the sustenance of democracy, that faith is an agent for good, that it protects the weak and defenseless, that it motives people to confront injustice.” 

In the following interview he talks about his campaign themes and the relationship between his political message and his Catholic faith.


CNA: When you speak to a group like the Faith and Freedom Coalition, like you did this weekend, or go to work at a place like the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where you have been a fellow, does it feel a bit like coming home? On paper, at least, are faith and freedom and ethics and public policy a good summation of why you ever bother with politics?

Sen. Rick Santorum: Yes, absolutely. I am certainly compelled by my faith to help engage in making this a better country, supporting a culture of life, and confronting the enemies of freedom.

Faith and freedom are dependent on one another, and our founders understood this. Freedom was meant for a virtuous people, and virtue is forged out of faith. Without faith, without religion as an active agent in our personal and public life, we will not be able to maintain the freedoms that we have been so uniquely blessed with. The two options to freedom rooted in faith are a spiraling into moral and cultural anarchy, or the replacement of internal restraint with external restraint, which is called totalitarianism.

CNA: You frequently talk about having a narrative that will move the ball forward. What do you mean by this? What’s the narrative? What ball?

Sen. Santorum: The narrative is “freedom under God.” The narrative of “why” America was established is found in the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Sadly, many of our leaders are asking the question “What is America?” This is not the first time. In his day, Lincoln said we didn’t have a good definition of liberty and were in great need of one. Freedom and equality, properly understood, as our Founders understood those terms, have been lost. By moving the ball forward, I mean that we have to renew our understanding of the Founders’ vision, return to it, and own its implications in our public and private lives.

Under our current leadership, the freedom of the individual has been subordinated to the growth of the government. That’s the European model – not ours. People talk of teachable moments. There’s never been a greater one than now.

CNA: So, where will America be after four years of Rick Santorum as president? Because with your announcement Monday, that’s what you’re aiming for.

Sen. Santorum: America will be well down the road to fiscal sanity and stability. The American private sector will be thriving. Decisions will be returned from Washington bureaucrats to main streets and homes. The American worker will have job opportunities in a robust economy spurred by growth-oriented fiscal, regulatory, and monetary policy. The most vulnerable among us will have a vocal and consistent leader in the White House with an administration dedicated to their protection. We will be friends to our allies and restore a lot of essential trust that has been lost. And our enemies will be confronted as enemies, not appeased as if we are the weak party and the supplicant. Both our friends and enemies will know where America stands. Fundamentally, faith in American greatness and in Americans themselves will be restored.

CNA: Why do you want to be president of the United States?

Sen. Santorum: I want to be president because I believe the American people deserve a leader who believes in them. I think 2008 was an experiment where a lot of people wanted a president they could believe in. That experiment failed.

My sense is people want a leader who trusts the American people, one who promotes rather than hampers the free enterprise system, one who believes in the growth of our private sector economy not the growth of the public sector government. In short, I want to be president because we have a great many things we need to get right – from national security and foreign policy to the economy to domestic social issues – and the current president has gotten almost all of those things wrong.

CNA: You’ve never been an executive? How are you qualified?

Sen. Santorum: By experience and by temperament. I’ve served the public in a lot of different ways, but one way is by exhibiting strong and decisive leadership, with a willingness to take positions that may not have been politically expedient, but were for the common good.

I’ve been elected a member of the House, elected a member of the Senate, and was elected to the leadership in the Senate. And in those roles, I was able to write, originate, and push substantive, meaningful legislation – from welfare reform in 1996 to the Syria Accountability Act to the Iran Freedom and Support Act to the Born Alive Infant Protect Act to the ban on partial-birth abortion.

Those bills, and many, many others, weren’t popular at first, but through work and talk and persuasion, I helped get them passed, and more often than not with bipartisan support. I look forward to putting my record before the American people. And of course, nothing qualifies you more for public service than a household of seven children.

CNA: What are you most proud of from your congressional record? Welfare reform?

Sen. Santorum: All of these things have been important. I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that I was known as someone who was willing to take on the tough issues and not trim my views or my votes for convenience or to appease any one constituency at the expense of another. In Pennsylvania, populated by one of the most elderly electorates in the nation (and seniors vote!), I was willing to address entitlement reform, and almost lost my first senate race because I was talking about the inevitable insolvency of Social Security and the fiscal instability of Medicare, Peggy Noonan once wrote about me that my style has been “to face what his colleagues hope to finesse.”

CNA: You were working on reforming health-care before it was cool, weren’t you?

Sen. Santorum: Yes. I’ve been at it a long time. As both a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee in the 1990s, I was one of the first pushing for healthcare savings accounts and for reform of Medicare.

Health care is one of those rare issues that implicates each and every one of us, and America has been blessed with the most advanced system that the world has ever seen. We have been incredibly innovative and successful in providing effective and quality care. But the choices have to be left in the hands of patients and health care providers for this to continue.

The “new order” that makes us dependent on government is not just a reorienting of our health care system, but a vast effort to make every American dependent on the government for their very lives.

CNA: Is your impression people still primarily associate you with abortion and marriage?

Sen. Santorum: Some do. I think the Left does. That’s fine. I don’t shrink from that, I’m proud of it. The protection of the vulnerable, whether children in the womb or the elderly at the end of their lives, is something to be proud of. The defense of some of our most important institutions the world has ever known – marriage and the family – why should anyone be embarrassed about standing for them?

But I also have a long record on tax, financial, and entitlement reform. I worked with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle on issues of inner city, rural, and global poverty. How can a society survive with three of our four of its inner city children are born out of wedlock? It’s probably just harder for some on the other side to understand those issues and, thus, less easy for them to criticize me for them.

The same is true on national security and foreign policy. I have been a leader not just while in the Senate with legislation like the Syria Accountability Act and the Iran Freedom and Support Act, but have devoted the past four years of my life to a program at a think tank to address the rise of radical Islamism, and its anti-American allies such as Venezuela.

CNA: What can you reasonably move forward on on those issues as president?

Sen. Santorum: All of them. I think everything should be in play because everything is in play. I don’t separate these issues as if they were legs of a stool. And the president is uniquely in a position to balance them.

CNA: Why shouldn’t those who disagree with you – especially on marriage and abortion – consider that a threat?

Sen. Santorum: If it is considered a threat to stand up for the values and virtues, the building blocks and ballasts, that have helped us secure the blessing of liberty, then that is our opponents’ problem not mine. I think the vast majority of Americans support life and marriage and our national defense and the idea of free enterprise. My question back to you is: “Who and what are the real threats to our more perfect union?”

I have a long history of bipartisan working relationships on Capitol Hill. As president, I would actually be able to uniquely work with my former colleagues, regardless of party and the particular split of Congress at the time of my election if there is one. I actually think my background as a federal legislator for 16 years will help in the success in forging consensus and moving the ball forward. I saw how poorly some of the previous administrations understood and treated members of Congress, and I certainly will not let my staff fall prey to the arrogance that can often overtake people who work at the White House.

CNA: I know it’s not cool to ask candidates about other potential candidates but: One of the only people who might begin to understand what it might be like to be Rick Santorum is Sarah Palin. She’s done stuff she doesn’t get credit for. She’s hated with a passion. Is this all about social issues with the two of you?

Sen. Santorum: I don’t think so. I could name other political leaders who support probably 99 percent of what Sarah supports but are not in the crosshairs of the elites. I think it’s something more. I think for Sarah it’s that she doesn’t do things the way most politicians do them, doesn’t speak the way most politicians speak and, yes, if you are an outspoken conservative woman, that’s going to attract more criticism as well.

That’s been the case in our movement for a very long time; look at how conservative female politicians and columnists and radio hosts are criticized – strong women that don’t tow the party line get attacked. The good news is they tend to handle it better and it seems to faze them less and less. I am proud to be in a party that has a field that includes strong women like Sarah and Michele Bachmann.

As for me, I think it’s that I’ve led on the issues, I’ve been out front on them, and haven’t just quietly checked the boxes or kept my head down hoping not to attract notice. It’s the man – or the woman – with the football that gets tackled after all.

CNA: What do you hear most often as you go to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina? From conservative activists, and perhaps, others?

Sen. Santorum: They want to know how it is we could lose so much so quickly. I don’t think very many people saw the speed with which President Obama could dismantle the economy and economic freedom or how quickly he would be able to consolidate power in Washington.

We haven’t had liberal Democrats in power in a while and I think a lot of people have forgotten how they govern and what they truly believe. Ronald Reagan used to say that freedom is only one generation away from extinction. With all the powers and levers of government now, that timeline has been accelerated. And it surprises people.

The government was designed to help people thrive and reach their God-given potentials. Most people know that intuitively and they speak a lot about how so much of that has been lost – taken, actually. In a country dedicated to free enterprise and entrepreneurism, it has become frustrating to people that the government has come to do the exact opposite of making life and work easier; it now makes things harder on people and business, and it does so all in order to strengthen the state not the individual. And this at a time that the competition from around the world has increased, especially from China.

This is what bothers people the most. Just at the time when we need to unleash American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, the very things that made us a great economic and military superpower, we are being shackled. These are the sentiments I note the most as I travel around the country.

CNA: Why is radical jihad such an issue for you?

Sen. Santorum: Because it’s such an issue for the jihadists. To borrow from Lincoln, they truly do want to blow out all the moral lights around us. Why don’t we believe what they say they believe?

They want to destroy Israel, they want to destroy America, they want to destroy the West, and they have no compunction about killing as many innocents as possible along the way. They are serious about it. They tell us this is what they want to do and they act on it, and our leaders choose to not believe them or see it.

The reason it’s an issue for me is I take the enemy at his word and action. To paraphrase (former British prime minister) Tony Blair, we have to have the same cultural resolve as the enemy, maybe even stronger. I worry about that. I’m not sure we fully appreciate the threat yet. And I think too many actually adopt at least a part of the Islamist complaint and grievance against us – that their wrath is somehow our fault. It is not.

CNA: Are we completely unaware of what’s going on in our backyard in this regard?

Sen. Santorum: Almost completely. I was talking about Venezuela and Hugo Chavez long before most. In fact, I was criticized in my 2006 race for being alarmist by raising the possibility that Iran might be working with Venezuela to plant terrorist cells in our back yard. You look at his alliances with Iran now, you look at Hezbollah in Latin America now, and then you look at the weakened state of our border, yes. If we don’t wake up ourselves we are going to be woken up by others. I have been saying this for years now, and working to wake Americans up. My weekly alert was called “The Gathering Storm” for a reason.

CNA: Do you ever feel a bit like a man without a state, having lost your last senatorial election as dramatically as you did?

Sen. Santorum: Not really. You learn more from loss than from success. Not that that’s what you hope for, obviously. But I think loss makes greater leaders, loss is a great teacher. I was proud of how I campaigned in 2006, and overwhelmed with the support and volunteers who joined the campaign to help. We never abandoned our principles or trimmed our views – I think even my critics will say that’s at least one thing about me they’ve admired. And I honestly don’t know of anything differently I could have done in 2006 to have succeeded.

But I’ve never felt like a man without a state. I’ve been privileged to be doing a lot of things since 2006 that I think – and hope – have been helpful to the American cause. I’ve worked at a think tank promoting issues of national security, I was privileged to have a regular newspaper column, I’ve been the Friday host of Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show, I’ve been able to travel more of the country and talk to more and more people. I think it’s all made me wiser, actually, and given me new and better appreciations for and about the whole country. Maybe most importantly, loss makes you more humble.

CNA: Why are you doing this? You can’t possibly win, can you?

Sen. Santorum: If I didn’t think I could win I would not be doing this. I think my record, my experience, my achievements, and my worldview stand in bold contrast to a lot of others. I’ve been written off and underestimated in almost every election I’ve run. That’s fine. Reagan once said there’s a difference between the box office and the critics – I try not to pay too much attention to the critics. The stakes are too high.

CNA: How are you doing this with a sick toddler and kids who need to go to college? It’s not like you’ve ever made a ton of money at anything.

Sen. Santorum: I have always believed if you work hard, keep your mind focused on the important things, and try not to worry about the future, it will usually take care of itself. That’s one of the things that has made this country so special – barriers can be great, but hard work and resolve usually pays itself off.

By the way, I think a great many Americans think we are losing this very thing because of the way the government has put so many burdens in place, because of the national debt we’ve been accumulating, and because the individual and the citizen have been downgraded as the government has been more and more empowered. But in general, I’m not someone who wants to look back someday and say I didn’t do everything I could to help keep America safe, secure, and prosperous – and not just for myself. In fact it’s for my children that I’ve stayed in the public fray.

CNA: What do you tell your daughter, Elizabeth, a student at the University of Dallas, when she reads what folks say about you? When she Googles your name?

Sen. Santorum: I don’t have to tell her much. She knows that personal vilification is often the price you have to pay for standing up strong for the right principles. She knows what the First Amendment is. Others have taken slings and arrows too, that’s just part of the cost of conviction. She’s an adult and gets all that.

CNA: Aren’t the kids sick of politics? Isn’t your wife, Karen?

Sen. Santorum: Politics at its best, campaigns at their best, should be and can be fun. Meeting people, hearing the concerns of fellow citizens, working hard to try and do something to better the country and peoples’ lives – that’s not something to get sick of. Yes, there are always challenges and trade offs, but service in the cause of the important is service not to ever regret. I couldn’t do anything in my career without Karen and the family – they are my biggest supporters and helpers and motivators. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do this without their blessings and support. We do this, we do everything, together.

CNA: When you talk about being “called” to do this – to run for president – it can make people nervous. Like you have a Messianic complex. We may have that already in the White House, some have certainly suggested. What do you mean when you say you believe you are called to do this now, and to run like you can and will win?

Sen. Santorum: We all have callings. They can be vocational and they can be personal. … I am also called to be a devoted father and husband. The idea of calling is something we should all embrace. It gives us purpose in what we do and how we live. Lincoln spoke of the reverence for America as our “political religion.” I’d like to think it’s mine, too.

A call to duty on behalf of the country shouldn’t make people nervous, it should actually motivate each and every one of us, whatever our work on behalf of our country. The question people should ask, whether it’s about me or President Obama or anyone else, is what do they intend to do with that call to duty. What are their ends? And are their means constitutional?

As for a messianic complex in the president, I leave that question to others. It’s just not something I think about. What I think about is what he is doing with his power and what we should be doing in contrast. As for me, all I’ve ever asked is that people engage me and join me in the debate about what I’ve stood for and proposed. The essence of our democracy is debate and discussion. I simply want to have more of that on behalf of our country. I don’t think there’s anything messianic about that.

CNA: How important is being Catholic in all of this?

Sen. Santorum: Supremely. You asked about my family earlier and I said I couldn’t do anything without them. I couldn’t do anything without my faith either. I think that’s true for a lot of people. An overwhelming percentage of Americans are religious, and religion matters to their daily lives. I am no different. I’m someone who needs and relies on God. I feel and see his work everywhere around me, every day. And I couldn’t imagine life without him.

I actually believe that Americans want our leaders to have a reliance on God. It shows that they are humble, and understand that they are under a higher authority. And we want leaders who respect religious conviction, not demean it. We want leaders who understand that faith is essential to the sustenance of democracy, that faith is an agent for good, that it protects the weak and defenseless, that it motives people to confront injustice.

Look at all of the great social movements in America over the centuries; most were led by religious leaders. And importantly, it is not just generic faith in God, but the understanding of the world that my Catholicism gives me – the world as it should be, an understanding of human nature and the ordering of our common affairs – that is important to me as a public official. Being religious, and my being consciously Catholic, is something to be proud of.

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