Rick Santorum and Racism

Rick Santorum may be one of the best public speakers I have ever seen. His manner and audience connection are as good as it gets, perhaps even better than Barack Obama. I still disagree with almost everything he says, and I think that his overwhelmingly faith-based perspective leads him to intolerance in many areas.

His faith is unquestionably admirable, and obviously benefits him in his life (as is the case with many religious people), but he uses his faith to reach conclusions that are badly misguided. (He still expresses those conclusions very well.)

That having been said, his controversial statements to the Young Americans Foundation on Native American culture were not racist, nor were they even wrong. At worst, they were incomplete.

Criticize Santorum if you want. I certainly do. But criticize him for the things he says that are wrong, or odious. Don’t criticize him for expressing a truth you don’t like.

If you want to understand this controversy, you have to understand the context of what he was saying. Listen to the whole speech. His fundamental point was that central to traditional American values is the fact that America was founded by people seeking religious freedom. He says, correctly, that those founders built a new nation from the ground up, starting with nothing.

Critics say he ignores the existence of Native American culture, but in fact he says the opposite. He acknowledges that Native American culture was already there, but he notes that the culture of the newly formed country, America, did not include Native American influences.

In that he is accurate. The European settlers ignored Native American culture. To them, it was not relevant to what they were building. To be complete, he should have said that the newcomers actively suppressed Native American culture. Not only did they build their new nation on a different foundation, but they pushed the Native Americans out of the way, killed them off, took their land, and forced them into restricted areas in which their culture was either marginalized or more often supplanted. Along the way, they tried to expunge Native American culture even from Native Americans, for example by the “education” of their children.

Santorum thinks that what the settlers created was a good thing – a new culture, different from Europe or any other country, and uninfluenced by the culture of the existing inhabitants. Like most normative conclusions, that is a half-truth. There are many things about American culture that are admirable, for sure. On the other hand, the destruction of the Native American way of life along the way was unconscionable, and also probably an opportunity lost for those who were creating a new nation. (How would America’s – and the world’s – approach to environmental issues be different today if they had just incorporated Native American values into the broader values in America from the get-go?)

In addition, as much as the settlers created over time a new American culture, that culture has continued to evolve. What Santorum fails to see is that many of the tensions in the U.S. today are the result of that evolutionary change, with those like him that believe in the absolutism of “traditional values” bucking that change. It is ethnocentrism taken to its logical conclusion, and it is not pretty.

Change will happen anyway in America, and for Santorum and many others it will be painful. That fight between those who see everything through a “religious liberty” lens (code for nothing is allowed to change), and those who seek a more egalitarian society, is happening in real time. People on both sides will be hurt in the process, as will innocent bystanders who just want to live their lives. That is already happening. We see it on the news every day.

Rick Santorum is a racist, certainly. You could see even in this speech points at which he stopped himself from saying that traditional values are white values.

As much as he is a racist, though, his comments on the creation of American culture, and the rejection by the settlers of Native American culture, are accurate.

They are a sad truth, to be sure, but they are true nonetheless.

Jay Shepherd, May 2021

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