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.)