Watching Rick Santorum rise in the polls by positioning himself as the real Christian presidential candidate is like watching the sequel of a horror movie — one I literally lived through in the 1980s while growing up in Pakistan. There, another religious zealot, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, played the lead role of the real Muslim.
The plot went like this: The clerics called for candidates with "true" Muslim values, the masses demanded a "Muslim candidate for a Muslim state," the leaders proved their "Muslimness" by quoting scripture and calling others lesser Muslims, and the candidate who was able to appease the clergy privately and please the masses publicly held on to power. The never-ending horror in the name of religion is what followed in Pakistan.
A somewhat similar fusion of church and candidate is apparent in this Republican primary season, where nearly every Republican candidate — except Ron Paul, who would not and Mitt Romney, who could not — has been a rabble-rouser, playing the religion card to rally the conservative Christian base.
Since I have seen a secular country morphing into a theocracy at the hands of a religious fanatic, trust me when I tell you: The aggressive display of theology in our political discourse by the Republican Party in general and Rick Santorum in particular is chipping away at the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.
Realize, though, that I do want to hear what my candidates believe in — what shapes them, what riles them, what motivates them. But that is different than saying, "At the end of the day, I'd rather have a president who worships the same God as I do." (A voter in South Carolina actually said that to a New York Times reporter.)
While Article Six of the U.S. Constitution provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any U.S. Office or public Trust," such voter preferences become a de facto religious test for the candidate — a test that he or she must pass.
Rick Santorum has no plans to fail that test. Back in 2002, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, he blamed President John F. Kennedy for making a distinction between private religious convictions and publicly held positions. More recently, he is winning over voters in the Rust Belt by claiming that President Barack Obama's agenda is "not a theology based on the Bible," but "a different theology."
As Santorum's rise to the top of the GOP field demonstrates, this "I-am-the-real-religious-candidate" strategy works. It worked for Zia-ul-Haq when he won the 1984 referendum by asking Pakistanis, "Do you wish Pakistan to be an Islamic state?" And it seems to be working for Mr. Santorum as he is essentially asking GOP primary voters, "Do you wish America to be a Christian state?"
To argue that candidates like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain lost despite their public displays of Christianity, and therefore we need not worry about Mr. Santorum, would be a fatal error of judgment. It's not only about winning; it's also about changing the norms of political discourse between voters and candidates. Over the past 50 years, Pakistan's religious parties have never won more than 12 percent of the vote. But playing the religion card publicly has conditioned the politicians to declare their "Muslimness" and conditioned the masses to the point that a political rally now sounds like a mosque sermon.
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So let's demand a separation between church and candidate. Mr. Santorum, don't talk about who belongs to which "stripe of Christianity"; embrace all the stripes, colors and stars. Don't hint about who is the real Christian candidate; instead, be the real American candidate.
For those who see nothing wrong with this public amalgamation of church and candidate, please consider viewing the horrors of the pseudo-Islamization of Pakistan — the once secular and currently sixth-most-populous country in the world. Chances are, you would say no to a sequel.
Faheem Younus is adjunct faculty for religion at the Community College of Baltimore County. Readers may send him email at faheem.younusgmail.com. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.