I Studied Savonarola, I Wrote About Savonarola, and Rick Santorum, Sir, You are No Savonarola

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Donald Weinstein has taught at the University of Iowa, Roosevelt University, UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Arizona in his thirty years as a professor. He is the author of numerous books, most recently "Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet."

Up until a few weeks ago, if you mentioned Girolamo Savonarola (pronounced "Saa-va-na-roll-a") anywhere but at a convention of historians, you would likely have been met with shrugs and puzzled looks. Even the few who were vaguely aware of him would have had trouble pronouncing his name, and an even harder time spelling it. All this has changed -- well, maybe not the spelling and pronunciation problems. But anyone reading a newspaper or surfing the web today is but a click or turn of the page away from the distinguished Italian friar and his life, but a short reading from actually having an opinion about him. In other words, Savonarola has gone viral. No, this sudden notoriety is -- unfortunately -- not due to my new book, Savonarola The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet which Yale University Press published last year. No, the real catalyst has been GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum, again catching steam after a series of victories in the South. For better or worse, columnists, bloggers, and tweeters -- those who prowl the social–and not-so-social media -- have decided that Rick Santorum is the new Savonarola, and they go on to inform us all that Savonarola was a fifteenth-century Dominican preacher who called down God’s wrath on sinners and prophesied a new era of universal Christendom.

It ought to be fairly obviously that this equation of Santorum with Savonarola doesn't come from Santorum's supporters. Indeed, it doesn't signify great affection for either. Savonarola’s enemies thought him a fanatic, a madman and a demagogue. Santorum is dismissed by his critics as a "would-be prophet" and "a small-town mullah," and they are likely to question his sincerity or dismiss him as just another politician out for votes. As one commentator asked rhetorically: which of the two should feel more insulted by the comparison?

My own answer to this question is that Savonarola ought to be much more offended. Ex-senator Santorum says he is a devout Christian, but his alliance with the rich and powerful and his lack of concern for the jobless and the poor undermine his credentials for leading a moral reformation. Savonarola spoke truth to power, which -- even more than predicting the future -- was the defining characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. He attacked the greed of the rich, and said that helping the poor was the responsibility of the Christian community. Like his model Thomas Aquinas he called for a republic that would serve the "common good." And Savonarola not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. A mendicant friar, he took (and kept) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (although he did refuse the pope’s summons to Rome where certain death awaited him.).

Santorum might have something to learn from Savonarola’s fate. If you claim to speak with the voice of God, constantly lambaste people for their sins and tell them that they are living in the very worst of times, they get tired of you. But the similarity ends there. When it became clear to people that Savonarola was not going to produce a miracle to prove he was God’s prophet, he and his two lieutenants were attacked by an angry mob and thrown into prison. Church and state joined forces to torture, hang and burn them as heretics and traitors. If Santorum is rejected by the voters he will have a much softer landing. Protected by our cherished principles of the separation of church and state and free speech he will return to private life where, presumably, he will continue to warn us against socialism and liberalism, deplore sin, and amass gobs of money as a lobbyist and influence-peddler. Lucky for Rick, we’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages, although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

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