Of all Rick Santorum’s colorful dramatic episodes, there is one that has crystallized his unique approach to politics. In 2003, during an otherwise routine interview with a female reporter from the Associated Press, the Pennsylvania Republican startled her by spontaneously suggesting that repeal of laws banning sodomy would lead to “man-on-dog” sex. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to be talking about ‘man-on-dog’ with a United States senator,” the reporter interjected. “It’s sort of freaking me out.” He hasn’t played the bestiality card on the campaign trail this fall, but Santorum has been immortalized as “Mr. Man-on-Dog,” a moniker that symbolizes the countless hyperbolic maledictions he has issued against liberal evildoers.
Even as more refined members of Santorum’s party distanced themselves from his rabid rhetoric, the intellectual origins of his views went unexplored. Hardly anyone knows that well before Santorum was a household name, he had fallen under the influence of a radical but politically sophisticated cadre of right-wing Catholic intellectuals who honed the arguments against abortion and gay marriage that he would carry as the Senate’s premier culture warrior. Among this cadre is the legal scholar and antiabortion activist Hadley Arkes, who has warned that gay marriage could lead to “cross-species involvements.”
The leader of that cadre is the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a former anti-Vietnam War leftist who drifted to the far shores of the Catholic right during the Reagan years and who founded the journal First Things, sustained on millions of dollars in grants, mainly from the conservative Scaife, Olin and Bradley foundations. With a direct pipeline to both the Vatican and the White House, Neuhaus is now at the pinnacle of his influence. Another prominent member of the cadre is Robert “Robby” George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and author of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, a proposal unsuccessfully advocated by President Bush that would have amended the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. George is also on the editorial advisory board of First Things. After Santorum’s man-on-dog gaffe, both Neuhaus and George leapt to his defense. While Neuhaus described Santorum’s statement as “Catholic witness in the public square,” George wrote a manifesto for National Review titled simply “Rick Santorum Is Right.”
Perhaps no one among the Catholic right’s intellectual pantheon has influenced Santorum as much as Arkes. A professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College who has advised President Bush on his judicial selections, Arkes is a Jew whose religion makes him unusual among those on the advisory board of First Things. But the difference stops there: Like the others, he is a fervent foe of abortion and gay rights who often asserts his opposition through the prism of the Catholic theory of natural law. And he shares the Catholic right’s penchant for apocalyptic antiabortion rhetoric.
During a 1994 First Things symposium called “Killing Abortionists,” convened in the wake of radical Presbyterian minister Paul Hill’s assassination of abortion physician John Britton and his bodyguard, Arkes offered a startling apologia for Hill’s actions: “Would the media, for instance, have been filled as they have in this case with reports of ‘religious zealots’ if a band of Jews had killed guards and executioners on their way to work in Auschwitz?” (Arkes did not respond to phone and e-mail requests from The Nation for an interview.)
Arkes’s influence on Santorum was apparent during Santorum’s appearance at the conservative Heritage Foundation during the summer of 2005, where he discussed his new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. Before a crowd of fresh-faced college Republicans bused in by Santorum’s publisher, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Senator argued that there is no guarantee of privacy rights in the Constitution. “Libertarians like to say, ‘Get the government out of our bedrooms,'” Santorum said. “But I say, ‘Hey, there are human beings in that bedroom!'” Santorum’s formulation was a coarse translation of Arkes’s assertion that the constitutional right to privacy–to the extent that he’s willing even to admit there is one–“doesn’t quite settle the substantive questions” of abortion and homosexuality.
I approached Santorum after his lecture while he was signing copies of It Takes a Family. I told Santorum that his arguments against abortion and gay marriage sounded remarkably similar to those honed by Arkes. The senator’s face suddenly lit up with a broad smile. “Oh, Hadley’s great,” Santorum told me. “I’ve worked with him for years and I work with him today. He’s great.” As I walked away, Santorum called out to me: “If you see Hadley, tell him I said hi.”
One of Arkes’s most significant contributions to Santorum’s political education has been to introduce him to the now-notorious man-on-dog idea. Long before Santorum had established his culture-war credentials, Arkes was spinning dark tales of barnyard bacchanals. In 1996, during an appearance on PBS’s Think Tank, Arkes warned that gay marriage could lead to “the incestuous marriage…or you could license the marriage of three or four, or cross-species involvements.” Less than a year later, during a speech at Brigham Young University, Arkes criticized President Bill Clinton for seeking legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. “That formula of ‘sexual orientation’ could even encompass bestiality, and relations with animals,” he insisted.
Arkes’s man-on-dog meme surfaced most recently in a 2003 column he published in National Review, in which he excoriated Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s ruling striking down Texas’s anti-sodomy law. “If people practice sadomasochistic sex or bestiality, if they have sex with animals in forms familiar and novel, would Kennedy truly contend that the rest of us are obliged to respect virtually everything that is done?” Arkes wrote. Though Arkes did not explain the distinction between “familiar” and “novel” bestiality, he had made clear his contention that even the slightest concession to gay civil rights could lead to the government sanctioning of man-on-dog sex.
According to Damon Linker, a former editor of First Things whose recent book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, provides a firsthand account of the rise of the Catholic right, “Hadley [Arkes] has turned the Socratic slippery slope way of reasoning into a career, especially on abortion and gay marriage. The idea that if we don’t say that gay marriage is evil, then the next thing you know, I’ll be shacking up with my puppy, that would come out of this view.” Linker added, “There’s always this assumption that we’ll do the worst thing that could happen. That’s the minor premise that’s never established. There is a very dark view of humans underlying Arkes’s arguments.”
Santorum’s involvement with Arkes has yielded more than overheated rhetoric. Indeed, Santorum has been the point man in the Senate for a sophisticated legal strategy Arkes devised that relies on incremental steps toward banning abortion. At the heart of this strategy is the concept of “planting premises” in the law to advance the notion that unborn children are protected by the same legal rights as living people. Arkes believes that eventually these new laws will foment a decisive conflict to overturn the precedents embodied in Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood that guarantee autonomy to pregnant women and establish a right to privacy–or as Arkes has said, “the right to a dead baby.”
Arkes’s plan is for the conflict to be ultimately resolved by a Supreme Court comprised of a majority in the ideological mold of Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the Catholic right high-court contingent that includes Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito (and perhaps Chief Justice John Roberts). Finally, according to his strategy, abortion will be banned in all circumstances and a “culture of life” will become the law of the land.
The professor’s plan came to fruition in June 2001, when Santorum slipped in the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act as a rider to the Patients Bill of Rights. Though the “born-alive” act simply banned the killing of children born after failed late-term abortions–a restatement of homicide laws already in place–Arkes viewed the bill as essential to his strategy. As he wrote in National Review that month, the “born-alive” act was “the ‘most modest first step’ imaginable on the issue of abortion, and yet it also had the most radical reach: It would confirm that Congress can lay hands on this subject; that Congress may legislate to establish the limits to the right to abortion, and even bar certain kinds of abortion.”
A year after its introduction, the Arkes-inspired bill passed the Senate on a unanimous voice vote. Though Congressional Democrats and prochoice groups like NARAL recognized the underlying radical intent of Arkes’s measure, they avoided open opposition. The best they could do was to allow the bill to pass without dissent, denying the melodramatic floor debate Santorum thirsted for. In National Review, Arkes reveled in his cunning, writing, “Rick Santorum acted quickly, with a modest step, and gently drew in the Democrats. But the Democrats, drawn in, might have gone further than even they suspect.”
On August 5, 2002, with Santorum standing over his shoulder and Arkes seated nearby, President George W. Bush signed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. “I appreciate Hadley Arkes,” Bush said, later pulling him aside to compliment his bill as “a first step in changing the culture.” Now, more “premises” would be implanted in the law.
Bush followed the success of the Born-Alive Act by signing the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in November 2003. Then, on April 1, 2004, while tabloids and cable TV stoked Middle American outrage over the murder of a pregnant housewife, Laci Peterson, by her adulterous husband, the President signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, mandating separate charges for any person who kills or injures a child in the womb while attacking its mother. In The Theocons, Linker explains the radical ulterior agenda behind the bill: “Although President Bush…claimed that the law was intended merely to affirm that violence against a pregnant woman often has ‘two victims,’ this very affirmation fundamentally challenged assumptions about the legal status of the fetus as it had been defined since Roe v. Wade.”
The most prominent Democrat to stand in the way of the stream of antiabortion legislation was Senator John Kerry, a Catholic. Bush and his Catholic-right allies immediately targeted Kerry’s faith by highlighting his opposition to Arkes’s “modest steps.” Late in the campaign, while Bush stumped across swing states pledging to build “a culture of life,” the Republican National Committee sponsored an ad featuring an image of a pregnant woman with a female voiceover reminding viewers that Kerry opposed “The Laci Peterson Act.”
Meanwhile, a core group of conservative Catholic bishops acting on direct orders from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger–a close ally of Richard John Neuhaus who would a year later become Pope Benedict XVI–advised bishops to deny communion to prochoice Catholic politicians. One of the bishops, Michael Sheridan of the Colorado Springs diocese, invoked the wrath of God. In 125,000 pastoral letters sent to his parishioners, he warned that those who vote for a prochoice, pro-gay rights candidate like Kerry “ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation.” The fire and brimstone had its desired effect. In 2000 Bush won 46 percent of the Catholic vote; in 2004 he carried 52 percent.
For Arkes, Bush’s success marked a cultural watershed. “A cultural drift, seemingly inevitable, had been halted,” he wrote in the April 2005 issue of First Things. “In fact, the country now seemed at a turning point.” Arkes’s optimism reflected a remarkable shift from his mood at the dawn of President Clinton’s second term, when, during a 1996 First Things symposium called “The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” he and other speakers questioned the very legitimacy of American democracy. Robert George, most notably, advocated mass civil disobedience to resist federal court decisions advancing reproductive and gay rights. But after the 2004 election, with conservative Republicans dominant in the White House and Congress, and with several Supreme Court vacancies on the horizon, a “culture of life” seemed finally within reach. “But where [Bush] was overly cautious before,” Arkes wrote, “there is no need for caution now.”
However, when the emboldened Catholic right pressed for more radical social legislation, led by their point man in the Senate, Rick Santorum, Bush’s triumph soon turned into a Pyrrhic victory. The Republicans’ downward spiral began during two crucial weeks in March 2005, when the Republican right fixed its attention on the plight of Terri Schiavo, a woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, whose husband, Michael, sought to remove her feeding tube.
When Michael Schiavo received Florida court approval, the Catholic right’s brain trust became convinced its predictions of legalized abortion and euthanasia generating a holocaust of unwanted people were finally coming to fruition. Robert George told National Review, “The Nazis killed–murdered–thousands of handicapped people and millions of Jews precisely because they regarded them as unfit to live…. What’s really going on here…is that Terri’s husband has decided that hers is a life not worth having.”
Santorum thrust himself into the crisis with a personal vow to save Schiavo’s life, even if it meant overriding the will of a state court. The Senate interrupted its Easter recess and rushed to Washington to approve legislation granting a final review at the federal court level to Schiavo’s parents, who opposed removing her feeding tube. Bush cut short his own vacation at his Texas ranch to sign the bill. Yet the courts unanimously rejected the appeal on the grounds that a bill affording special rights to an individual is explicitly unconstitutional.
Santorum swung back into action, beseeching Republican officials in Florida to make a last-minute end run around the courts. After canceling a speech he had scheduled in Florida to discuss his support for privatizing Social Security, Santorum detoured to Schiavo’s hospice with press gaggle in tow. Standing by Schiavo’s bedside, Santorum prayed with her parents and explained, “This is about trying to do right by a woman who legally is being wronged by the system.”
The public reacted to the spectacle with revulsion; as a result, the approval rating of the Republican Congress plummeted. Yet even after an autopsy a month after Schiavo’s death showed that “no amount of treatment or rehabilitation would have reversed” her brain damage, Santorum clung to his position. “If a state court decides to take the life of someone, there should be a federal review,” he told the Washington Post. It did not seem to matter to Santorum’s populist allies at First Things that their man in the Senate now found “judicial tyranny” convenient.
The Schiavo affair coincided with the launch of Santorum’s campaign for re-election against Bob Casey Jr. Though Casey is a conservative Democrat and Catholic opposed to abortion, he appeared a figure of calm reason next to Santorum. To complicate political matters for Santorum, his conservative Catholic allies have had a difficult time making the case to Catholic Pennsylvanians that voting for the Democrat is tantamount to violating their sacrament. From the inception of the campaign to now, less than a week before election day, polls have consistently showed Santorum behind by double digits.
Santorum’s impending defeat has compounded the already palpable anguish in conservative circles. Recently, John Miller of National Review declared that Santorum’s loss would not only cost the right wing “one of its most talented warriors” but would also be “a repudiation of conservatism itself.” Yet the movement that animated Santorum’s ideology on matters from abortion to “man-on-dog” sex is already looking beyond him for their next political host body. They are especially interested in outgoing Massachusetts governor and possible GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Though Romney is a Mormon, his campaign is taking aggressive steps to capture the heart of the Catholic right. On October 16 he hosted a junior member of the movement in his office, National Review‘s Kathryn Jean Lopez. Lopez came away convinced that Romney was an avid reader of her intellectual heroes. “While in the statehouse today, I couldn’t help but notice (and no one pointed it out to me, for the record) a copy of [Ramesh Ponnuru’s antiabortion polemic] Party of Death in the recently read pile,” Lopez wrote on the National Review blog. Without a trace of skepticism, she continued, “Incidentally, not far from it was Clash of Orthodoxies, by Ramesh’s old prof, Robby George…. None of which looked like it was put out for [a National Review Online] visit.”
While painful for the Catholic right, the possible demise of the Republican Congressional majority would be only one defeat in the Catholic right’s protracted culture war. They have already inaugurated their post-Santorum, post-Bush strategy. As Arkes wrote in First Things in 2005, “The future of the pro-life movement need not depend on chance, or even the next presidential campaign.”