Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Rick Santorum’s Anti-Individualistic Brand of Conservatism

Michael J. Gerson


This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The decision of the Iowa caucuses was politically mixed.  Three candidates emerged with serious support, revealing an ideologically divided Republican Party.  But one clear result was the swift political rise of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. 

Santorum’s appeal in Iowa was similar to Mike Huckabee’s message four years ago.  Both combine uncompromising social conservatism with economic populism.  Santorum talked, not only about life issues and the traditional family, but also about economic stagnation among blue-collar workers and the need for greater economic mobility in America.  It was a potent, popular message, particularly among religious conservatives in Iowa. 

Santorum has limitations as a candidate.  His rhetoric on immigration, Islam and social issues can be needlessly harsh.  His openness to protectionism makes little long-term economic sense.  But over the years, Santorum has achieved something rare: He has introduced large philosophic ideas into political debates. 

His 2005 speech to a conservative conference on the nature of social justice is a case in point.  In that lecture, Santorum is tough on modern liberalism, which he accuses of encouraging dependency.  But he also calls for self-reflection by conservatives. 

Santorum argues that conservatism must be something more than extreme individualism – what he calls a “selfish freedom.”  “Someone always gets hurt,” Santorum says, “when masses of individuals do what is only in their own self-interest.”  True conservatism, in his view, is founded on the family, which encourages morality and values.  It recognizes the importance of congregations, charities and other community institutions, which encourage trust between citizens and a commitment to the common good.  Conservatism, Santorum continues, should be founded on a belief in human dignity, applied not only to the unborn and but also to repressed minorities abroad, victims of international sex trafficking, and people with AIDS.  “Caring for the sick and dying in Africa,” Santorum contends, “is morally right and it is geopolitically prudent.”  And former Senator argues that conservatism must offer creative policy ideas to help those in persistent poverty in our own country. 

Many in the political class find these views strange.  They are accustomed to a simple conflict between big government and radically free markets.  But Santorum – a strong Catholic himself – is located within an old, well-developed tradition of Christian social thought.  He is applying the idea of subsidiarity.  In this view, human needs are best met by institutions closest to human beings.  But when those institutions fail, or are overwhelmed, higher order institutions – including the state – gain a proper role.  This concept of subsidiarity is paired with a Christian belief in solidarity – the idea that the justice of a society is measured, in part, by its treatment of the helpless and poor.

These views – also reflected in the Protestant Reformed tradition – are different from statism and from libertarianism.  They define a limited but noble role for government, which Santorum says is “as important as the other vital societal structures that order our lives.” 

Santorum is far from a perfect candidate.  But he has brought a seriousness to public debates that others have not.  And he has earned a serious look by the electorate.   

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”