In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
NOT FEELING LUCKY: A gay activist used a clever Internet campaign to create a new meaning for GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's name on Google. Has the culture war gone digital? (Photo by Mike Segar/Newscom)
Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”
For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.
(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)
Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”
But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”
But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.
Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.
Words have meanings
See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”
For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.
Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”
Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.
By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.
But in this situation, it does explain a lot.
The gay civil rights movement
For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.
By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.
(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)
So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.
Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.
(This is one of the reasons why President Obama, regarding gay rights, tends to let his subordinates do the talking.)
So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?
For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.