Memo to Pundits: Stop Calling Rick Santorum a Fascist

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Michelle Nickerson teaches U.S. women’s, gender, and political history at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of the forthcoming "Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right."

Rick Santorum “did it again” last Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi. Flanked by five of his seven children with wife Karen, he opened his victory speech to crowds of supporters in southern Louisiana by sharing a common greeting he encounters on the campaign trail: “I am praying for you.” All the prayers, all the kids, and all the victories have been drawing scrutiny not only to Santorum’s conservative Catholicism, but to his links with the Catholic organization Opus Dei, founded in 1928 by St. Josemaría Escrivà, a Spanish priest who supported Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. Fueling the interest in Opus Dei’s orthodoxy and Catholicism's role in mid-century fascism have been the protests by Catholic bishops and conservatives against the contraception mandate that President Obama added to the Affordable Care Act. The debates have made the power of clergy to withhold reproductive health services from women by virtue of the church’s widespread presence in the national healthcare system... well, frighteningly apparent. 

Mike McShea at the Daily Kos writes that “this new fascist hate, this new Vatican nationalism just oozes” out of Santorum while another blog called “Tom in Paine” argues that Santorum represents “exactly the kind of religious fascism that the Founders wanted to insure would never be a part of the United States." According to Salon blogger Ted Frier, Rick Santorum belong[s] "to a school of conservatism shared by" Brent Bozell, the mid-century intellectual and fervent Catholic who after living in Spain, returned in the early 1960s an enthusiastic advocate of state-enforced Catholic virtue modeled by Franco. Although the March 3 edition of the New York Times featured a probing and informative investigative piece on the origins of Santorum's religious conservatism, the political media gives us mostly stock, ahistorical, universalistic depictions of Opus Dei as the modern representation of organized lay conservatism. The problem is not the accuracy of the coverage, but the tendency of polemicists to lump and rely on pat assumptions when it comes to political forces they find sinister. 

While reading yet again about the Opus Dei’s sex-segregated culture, and the self-flagellation among celibates, I can't help but wonder about the particularities of different Opus Dei chapters across countries and cities, or of the ethnic, cultural, or generational diversity within the organization. The debates raging over birth control, for that matter, have exposed how little we know about American Catholics as a political constituency—one that does not favor Rick Santorum in the upcoming election. Do we want to know how these distinctions shape religious conservatism? Many of us do, but critics aren’t leading us to answers with good questions. Instead, we find ourselves satisfied the same tired “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” logic that conservatives deploy relentlessly to convince themselves that President Obama is a socialist.

As a historian of red-baiting in the McCarthy era, I have to admit that this invocation of fascism strikes me as misguided. In the course of archival research, I would often come across reprints of a heavily circulated and much faded photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King at the Highlander Folk School, a famous training ground for mid-century political radicals. Red-baiters often circled King's image to further underscore the supposed links it proved between the civil rights leader and the Communist Party. Tenuous webs of association worked so well for anti-communists who merely needed to establish simple “ties” between accused persons and groups with remote connections to a communist organization. The link was enough to indict.

The ties established between Santorum, his church in Virginia, the school attended by the Santorum sons, and Opus Dei—they are real. And the history?  As we know: anyone can access numerous sources on how the Catholic Church and Spanish state reinforced each other’s power. As for Opus Dei, we need to be more careful. As cultist and misogynistic as it clearly is, the research suggests no unified support for or against the Franco regime. We ought to take lessons from historian Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest about the complexities of the relationship between charismatic leaders and their audiences. Embracing ideas espoused by Josemaría Escrivà, as Depression-era Americans did those of populists Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, does not necessarily mean that Opus Dei members embrace all Escrivà’s beliefs wholesale.

Of course there are parallels between Santorum and European fascists. Both condemned birth control and the supposed sexual degeneracy of modern times. But it is pure fantasy to suppose that Santorum or the current American right more generally calls for the overthrow of electoral democracy and its replacement with an authoritarian cult of personality, as did the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.

To interrogate the application of fascism in this election, as I am doing here, is not meant to throw out the history of authoritarianism as an appropriate mechanism for critically examining the current political landscape. So what's the difference? While polemicists let "ties" do the heavy lifting of establishing proof, more careful critics could pay more attention to the particularities that might explain how conservatives have developed an anti-statist authoritarianism. I don’t mean they have found a way to circumvent the government, but rather established a means of diffusing enforcement of conservative values through community, church, familial, municipal, and state-level institutions. Texas lawmakers, for example, recently succeeded in withdrawing women’s access to health screenings, contraception, and exams by barring federal Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood for those purposes. Lone Star legislators have also joined twenty other states in mandating that women seeking abortions first endure an invasive vagina ultrasound probe among other hurdles that make mincemeat of abortion rights supposedly secured by Roe v. Wade. Federally protected rights are no match for these more dispersed arbiters of moral authority. It’s time we get to know them, in their space, and how they got there.

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