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Santorum applies religious test 

The rise of Rick Santorum raises the prospect that this year we will get closer to a test of that sentence in the Constitution that says "no religious test shall ever be required" for president or any other office in the land, which was debated hotly in 1787 but only mildly from time to time in the intervening 225 years.

We will not have a true legal test, of course, because the language and meaning are incontestable — no one can be kept off a ballot or denied office because of his or her peculiar religious faith or lack of one. Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and the wandering religious pilgrim Newt Gingrich need not worry. And though Santorum may violate the spirit of Article VI Section 3, no one, thanks to the First Amendment, will sue to stop him from claiming that his brand of piety gives him superior credentials for the job or that President Obama's faith makes him deficient. But Santorum's ascent to the top of the GOP field means that we will have exactly that debate, at least for a while.

Santorum has been raising the issue of spiritual suitability for some time, although indirectly in the case of Romney's Mormonism. He doesn't have to exploit that issue squarely. It is firmly implanted with evangelicals.

While campaigning in Ohio last week, the former senator, who unlike previous Catholic candidates adheres rigidly to Catholic doctrine and says he will apply it as president, questioned the president's Christian values. He accused Obama of having "a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible — a different theology." His press secretary, Alice Stewart, formerly with Mike Huckabee and then Michele Bachmann, referred to it in a TV interview as "Islamic" theology, then said she misspoke when the interviewer called her on it.

The president's men cried foul; it was a low blow even for this subterranean campaign. After letting the controversy simmer for two days, Santorum came up with a "clarification." He wasn't questioning whether Obama was a Christian (he did that three years ago) but was referring to the environmental stands of the president. Santorum returned to the old attack on conservationists as Earth worshipers.

"I accept the fact that the president is a Christian," Santorum said. "I just said that when you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the Earth by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example the politicization of the whole global-warming debate."

If environmentalism is an anti-Christian value, then Rev. Pat Robertson and other clerics are going to hell. Robertson appeared with Al Gore to preach that God expects Christians to preserve the sanctity "of this fragile planet we all live on."

But painting Barack Obama as a tree hugger had not been Santorum's intention. It was to reinvigorate the skepticism about Obama's Christian conversion. Polls show that many people believe he is a Muslim. In 2008, Santorum said Obama had attended church in Chicago for 20 years so he could claim to be a Christian and one day be elected to political office. Obama had to repeatedly restate his faith to interviewers.

As a live candidate Santorum is more circumspect. "If he says he is a Christian, I accept that," he says in a sort of rhetorical wink.

But running for political office on the ground that you are a better Christian, more faithful to biblical doctrine, will prove to be perilous, as Santorum may already be discovering in the debate over insuring birth control medicine and procedures. Polls show that a huge majority of voters, even Catholics, disagree with him on whether health insurance should cover birth control for anyone who wants it.

If Santorum's momentum continues, he will soon have to deal publicly with a different kind of marital issue from Newt Gingrich's. He and his wife, Karen, say birth control and abortion are terrible sins against God. So, did Santorum's wife use contraceptives all those years when she was the live-in girlfriend of Dr. Tom Allen, Pittsburgh's leading abortion doctor, before she met and married Santorum? Dr. Allen, now 92, says Karen told him when she broke off their affair that her new boyfriend was pro-choice and a humanist like them.

Gingrich, Herman Cain and Bill Clinton can tell Santorum there is no zone of privacy for you or your wife when you are running for president.

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