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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Santorum: a word for all sorts of nastiness

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Republican hopeful is out there with the extremists he despises.

You'd think that if you googled "santorum", you'd be inundated with stuff about Rick Santorum, the US religious right's flavour of the month now being touted as a serious contender to be the Republican Party candidate in this year's presidential election.

Well, yes and no. Chances are the first thing on the info-menu would be an item explaining that "santorum" is a recently coined term for a by-product of a certain sexual practice. I think we'll leave it there: even if this wasn't a family newspaper, santorum belongs in the file marked "too much information".

The story of how this came about is a dispatch from the frontline of the culture war that continues to rage in the USA, but thankfully petered out in New Zealand years ago.

Santorum, an ardent Catholic, has an inordinate interest in sex as practised by other people. In 2003, while holding forth - as he often does - on the subject of homosexuality, he equated it with activities such as incest, bigamy and polygamy which are outlawed throughout the developed world. Perhaps feeling he hadn't quite conveyed the sheer depravity of it, he then lumped homosexuality in with bestiality or, as he elegantly put it, "man on dog".

This so infuriated gay rights activist and columnist Dan Savage that he decided to pay Santorum back by "attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head".

After settling on one of the 3000 suggestions he received, Savage set about getting the term into circulation.

It mightn't have made it into everyday use - it's not a term the average person would have much call for - but it certainly gets bandied about in cyberspace and despite Santorum the candidate's efforts to have it deleted, santorum the substance is a top result when searched on Google, Yahoo and Bing.

Mr Santorum isn't your normal conservative. Conservatives want to conserve; they might hanker for the good old days, but they'll settle for keeping things as they are, or even for merely slowing the rate of change. Santorum doesn't want to conserve the status quo, he wants to turn the clock back.

For instance he disapproves of any sexual relationship except that between a man and woman in marriage, and of contraception which he describes as "a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be".

Not that he's got a one-track mind. Santorum's also on permanent high alert for people who call themselves Christians, but aren't the real deal.

This week he outed Barack Obama, claiming the President subscribes to "a phoney theology".

Santorum insists it's impossible to be a liberal Christian, because true Christians live by what's in the Bible: "To take what is plainly written and say, 'I don't agree with that, therefore I don't have to pay any attention to it' means you're not what you say you are. You're a liberal something, but you're not a Christian."

In other words, if you don't believe Adam and Eve were real people and there really was a talking snake and a place called the Garden of Eden, you're not a Christian.

So the man who would be US President and de facto leader of Western civilisation wouldn't regard my father, an Anglican clergyman for 43 years, as a Christian. (If he was still with us, my father's response would be a derisive snort and a single word: "daft".)

On that basis I'd suggest Santorum bears more resemblance to the ludicrous Cardinal Ximinez in Monty Python's "Spanish Inquisition" sketch ("Now, old woman, you are accused of heresy on three counts - heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed and heresy by action ... four counts") than a worthy presidential candidate.

No intelligent, worldly, civilised person concerns him or herself with what consenting adults do in private, or claims the omniscience to question the sincerity of an individual's philosophical or spiritual beliefs.

As children we learn to be suspicious of those who protest too much, and there's a long history of shrill moralisers failing to live up to their own strictures.

In recent times, leading lights of America's bible-thumping, homophobic right who privately practise the opposite of what they preach have featured prominently.

And those who engage in zealotry shouldn't complain when they're compared to other zealots, since what divides fanatics of various stripes is often less than what they have in common. For a start, they all divide humanity into true believers and heretics.

If you're casting around for people who share Santorum's religious fundamentalism and his fear and loathing of female sexual emancipation and homosexuality, look no further than the "Islamic fascists" he also denounces.

- NZ Herald

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