Rick Santorum Didn't Restart the Culture War--It Never Stopped

When conservatives mention economics, they're really talking about culture.

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Since the firestorm over contraception and religious freedom erupted, there seems to be some kind of consensus that the "culture war" has returned to the fore of American politics. The consensus is wrong. The culture war never stopped.

In fact, former Sen. Rick Santorum explicitly says so himself!

[ See pictures of Rick Santorum]

While campaigning in Columbus, Ohio, Santorum said President Obama's "agenda" is,

not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.

I've been trying to make this case (though not in the way Santorum is making it) all along.

Out of political convenience or cultural distance, Beltway conservatives refuse to see this: Hardcore conservative opposition to Obama has always been cultural and theological. The pop-theological mainstream of American evangelicals has so thoroughly assimilated the ideal of American capitalism that any deviation, however modest, from it is tantamount to radical godless humanism. And, in an extension of an older intradenominational debate, conservative Catholics like Santorum deeply mistrust the ideal of "social justice" as championed by the Catholic left.

[ Read Mary Kate Cary: Obama's War on Religion Will Unite His GOP Opposition]

As I've argued before, the line between culture and economics is disappearing. Santorum has muddied this picture somewhat with rhetoric aimed at blue-collar voters to the effect that he doesn't believe that if we just cut taxes, "everything will be fine."

But such rhetoric, while interesting, is hollow; his economic agenda is full of tax cuts, and I see nothing in it that's affirmatively different from Republican orthodoxy.

There's a sense in which the proxy cultural war is nothing new. In Unadjusted Man in the Age of Overadjustment: Where History and Literature Intersect, historian Peter Viereck argued compellingly that that the long strand of populism, from William Jennings Bryan to Robert La Follette to Joseph McCarthy, was all about "smashing Plymouth Rock" (i.e., the snooty Eastern Establishment). What McCarthy really hated about the likes of Alger Hiss wasn't the communism per se, but his resemblance to the likes of Dean Acheson.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP primaries.]

As McCarthy said in a famous 1950 speech in Wheeling, W.Va., the ones "who have been selling this nation out" were those

who have had all the benefits ... the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in government that we can give. This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouth are the ones who have been worst.

Unlike McCarthy, the Tea Party never felt it had to define Obama as an "enemy within"; born in Kenya, he was the "enemy without"!

Make no mistake. Such has been the animating spirit of the Tea Party all along. That's what is fueling the Santorum "insurgency" right now. Culture war is the big picture. Fail to see it, you won't fully understand the 2012 presidential campaign.