Politics of Rick Santorum's Theology: Is Faith a Kingmaker or Deal- Breaker?

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Rick Santorum, playing the religion card, appears to be winning support of evangelical Christians ahead of potentially pivotal GOP primaries in Arizona and Michigan.

The language of personal faith appears to be helping GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum turn lingering doubts among Protestant evangelicals about Mitt Romney's Mormonism (and even President Obama's Christianity) into a poll surge.

Mr. Santorum, the former US senator from Pennsylvania, was excoriated by pundits this week, after a 2008 speech to Ave Maria University surfaced in which he suggested that Satan is waging a "spiritual war" on the United States. Earlier in the week, Santorum, a Roman Catholic and staunch social conservative, talked about Mr. Obama adhering to "phony theology," a quip that Santorum later insisted wasn't about the president's faith but about his support of "radical environmentalism."

Then the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, added to the controversy by suggesting he couldn't "categorically" say whether Obama, who has repeatedly stated that he's a Christian, may be totally genuine in his Christian beliefs. He also said, when asked about Romney's faith, that most evangelicals don't consider Mormonism to be a Christian faith.

Amid an unusually unsettled nomination process, the focus on faith may be just the latest example in which a candidate attempts to draw a distinction for undecided voters while forcing his competitors to defend their beliefs. Voters will ultimately decide whether a candidate's theology is a valid issue in a political campaign, or whether the debate should stick to concerns such as jobs, the economy, and illegal immigration.

At the same time, Santorum is striking a chord with religious voters. He has nearly doubled his support among white, evangelical Republican voters in the past month, going from 22 percent support in mid-January to 41 percent by Feb. 15, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While a higher percentage of mainline Protestants support Mitt Romney, 21 percent now support Santorum, up from 9 percent in mid-January.

Persuading Christian conservatives, and evangelical Protestants in particular, that he shares their morals may pay off for Santorum in next Tuesday's pivotal primaries in Arizona and Michigan. But religious probing is also a way for voters, traditionally, to take stock of candidates' values and beliefs.

"American religions serve as a proxy for morality, and what we really want to know is whether or not our presidential candidates are good, decent, honorable people," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University, in New York. "The flawed premise, of course, is that somebody who does not have religious affiliation cannot be a moral person, and that's demonstrably false. But we don't know how to ask the question in any other way. …