By Ruth Conniff
October 2005 Issue
Just so you don’t have to, I actually read ...Rick Santorum’s entire new book, It Takes a FamilySantorum, the conservative, pro-life Republican from Pennsylvania, is up for reelection in one of the most closely watched Senate races of 2006. His opponent, conservative, pro-life Democrat Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania state treasurer, has pulled into a double-digit lead. But Santorum has a strong operation and has come from behind before. He is a national leader of the cultural conservative movement. Thus, his Senate race, his rumored Presidential ambitions, and his current book tour are a kind of barometer of rightwing Christian popularity.
In It Takes a Family (the title is a not-so-subtle jab at Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village), Santorum shows how, in his view, liberals have seized control of every facet of our national life. It’s illuminating to see the whole unified theory laid out.
Santorum describes what leftwingers used to call the Establishment—the people who run the nation’s universities, schools, cultural institutions, media, “some big business,” “some big labor unions,” “and of course the biggest Big of all, the federal government”—as one giant liberal cabal he calls “the village elders” or “the Bigs.”
The struggle for the soul of the country comes down to a battle of “the Littles”—churches, civic groups, “and the greatest thorn in the liberals’ side, the iconoclastic traditional family”—against the power-mad advocates of welfare, public education, infanticide, and gay marriage.
“The shock troops of the village elders are now battering at the gates of the fortress of marriage,” he writes. “The gates will not long hold. The fortress is but a few years away—at most!—of being laid to ruin, unless we, like the apparently doomed warriors at Helms Deep in the movie The Two Towers, make that last charge against the foe.”
As I was reading this breathless passage, I happened to look up at my lesbian neighbors’ perfectly manicured lawn. These neighbors are as cheerful about my kids’ frequent forays onto their property as they are fastidious about their yard maintenance. I imagined for a moment gathering my family and huddling in the house, as Santorum describes, against the unseen threat they supposedly pose to us. First, I’d have to drag my toddler out of their flowerbed, where she goes to greet their garden gnomes every day. Then I’d have to chase my four-year-old away from her rapt observations of their lawn mowing. My children would have a hard time understanding the danger.
But where other people see a bunch of well-meaning folks minding their own business, Santorum sees a nefarious plot, invisible to the untrained eye. According to Santorum, the “village elders” are not just bad people seeking money or power. Far more ominously, the “Bigs” are a highly coordinated, radical sect bent on creating “a utopia” by replacing traditional values with their own mad, secular humanist scheme.
Religious groups are among the chief enemies of this liberal cabal because “they teach right from wrong and selfless service to others. In other words, they are a threat to the rule of the village elders, and so, like the traditional family they must be either co-opted or eliminated.”
When he lets up a little on the culture-war rhetoric, Santorum has a few interesting things to say about his conservative values. He apologizes for his party’s failure to offer a coherent vision for fighting poverty, and he works to reach out to African Americans. He even favors letting felons vote.
Santorum’s get-tough attitude on welfare reform, though, clashes rather dramatically with his every-life-is-precious anti-abortion stance. In one section of his book, he says liberals screwed up by trying to protect children born out of wedlock from cuts in welfare. Stigma and shame should attach to illegitimate births, he argues. But later he laments the high rate of abortion among poor, African American women.
Likewise, when he writes about a former welfare recipient whom he actually knows, his staff assistant Michelle, his admiration runs afoul of his policy prescriptions. He doesn’t seem to notice that Michelle’s success is the story of a woman who left her children’s father (a big no-no in Santorum’s book), got help in a publicly funded shelter (which he doesn’t support), and used welfare money to supplement her while she got a technical-college education (welfare recipients should be compelled to drop out of school and take the first job available, Santorum argues). Though he praises Michelle, most of her achievements result from choices Santorum opposes and has sponsored legislation to combat.
The biggest groaner in the book is Santorum’s section on good versus bad culture. Bad: Sex in the City and Friends. Good: The Lord of the Rings, Braveheart (of course), and, despite his crusade against violence in the media, The Passion of the Christ. Surprise kudos for promoting “the common good” go to, of all things, Adam Sandler’s Spanglish.
Santorum admits he’s no art critic. He likes the movies, but rarely goes to museums or the theater. But that doesn’t stop him from rehashing Allan Bloom’s “closing of the American mind” critique of the destructive effects of political correctness. Liberals have tragically “rejected the distinction between high culture and low culture,” writes the Adam Sandler fan.
Despite all the obvious problems with Santorum’s global analysis—from his paranoid vision of the left’s power (he glosses over the fact that his own party controls all three branches of the federal government) to his sometimes tediously predictable attacks on feminists, the teachers’ unions, and all the other usual suspects—I am inclined to be sympathetic to parts of his radical cultural critique. There is, after all, a great deal of common ground between conservative and progressive rebellion against mainstream consumer culture. Santorum touches on the time bind, the loss of community connectedness, the emptiness of consumerism, the numbing effects of too much TV. But unlike his political compadres Pat Buchanan, a real economic populist, or Phyllis Schlafly, who has joined with progressive organizations to chase junk food purveyors out of school cafeterias, Santorum doesn’t get into any of this nuts-and-bolts reform. Instead, he praises Wal-Mart as a “good corporate citizen” for refusing to sell sexually graphic DVDs. A large soft drink manufacturer has promised him to try to advertise on more family-friendly shows, he writes. Talk about coddling “the Bigs.”
I expected something a little more edgy from the father of six homeschooled children. But even Santorum’s parenting advice is surprisingly lame. Not letting your kids have a television in their own room “will strike many parents as extremist and even somehow wrong,” he writes. Are you kidding? Here we are huddled in the citadel, trying to protect our families against the onslaught of a corrupting culture, and all Santorum can come up with is don’t put a TV in your kid’s room? Why not throw the TVs out the window, along with the chips and sodas that are making American children obese? Why not start a revolution of part-time work, where both parents have ample time to take care of their families, and everyone sits down to dinner together every night? You want civic organizations? How about community gardens and neighborhood child care co-ops so stay-at-home parents can get a break and neighbors can join together to take care of the kids? I mean, are we talking about a pro-family revolution or aren’t we?
Given the title of his book, Santorum has surprisingly little to say about the struggle to raise healthy, moral kids in our modern society. I suspect the mother and homeschooler of his children, Karen, might have more to say on this topic. “She is often single-handedly the steady guiding light for our six children,” Santorum writes. With his busy schedule, he often misses family time, he admits. Maybe It Takes a Family should have been titled It Takes a Wife.
In his book, Santorum scolds working mothers. Helping support the family, he writes, “provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home.”
The same could be said for politicians who leave the home school to go on family-values political crusades. 2006 may be Santorum’s opportunity to put his money where his mouth is and, as they like to say in Washington, spend more time with his family.