The senate’s third-ranking Republican urged Orthodox leaders to fight the powers of “radical secularism” as if “the lives of your children are at stake.”
Senator Rick Santorum, leader of the Senate Republican conference, issued his call Monday in Manhattan during the Monday keynote address at a gathering of Orthodox Union leaders, an organization representing about 1,000 congregations.
“For people of faith, the freedom of religion and religious pluralism is the foundation for all the freedoms we have in this country,” said Santorum, a leading opponent of abortion rights and gay rights.
“I consider [religious freedom] the first freedom — more important than the freedom of speech, more important than the freedom of assembly, and more important than the freedom of the press,” Santorum said. “Why? Because it’s essentially the freedom to think.”
Santorum’s address had been billed as a speech on the “War of the Jihadists Against the West,” but the junior senator from Pennsylvania focused mainly on domestic issues and Israel-related matters. In addition to his strong support for Israel, Santorum has worked with the O.U. on several domestic issues, including the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill that would make it easier for employees to fulfill their religious practices without risking their jobs.
Liberals and gay-rights activists roundly condemned Santorum earlier this year, after he spoke out against the right of adults to engage in homosexual acts. Santorum warned that if the Supreme Court justices threw out an anti-sodomy law in Texas – which they subsequently did – it could lead to the legalization of incest and other taboo behaviors.
When Santorum’s invitation to the O.U. event was first announced, the organization’s representative in Washington, Nathan Diament, disputed the claim that Santorum’s remarks represented a bigoted attack against gays and lesbians. Instead, Diament argued, the senator was attempting to make a nuanced point about the legal implications of the Texas case. Diament praised Santorum’s opposition to state-sanctioned gay marriages.
While Satorum steered clear of the issue Monday, he did take a stab at “radical secularists.” Appearing to capitalize on the Orthodox crowd’s unhappiness with media coverage of Israel, the senator drew loud applause when he warned that “there are many of them in our society, and many of them happen to be at the New York Times.”
The alternative to religious freedom, Santorum said, is an all-powerful state in which fundamental rights are trampled. “I want to remind people of the societies that have been secular in nature. Starting with the French Revolution, moving onto the fascists and the Nazis and the communists and the Baathists, all of those purely secularists hated religion, tried to crush religion.
“That alternative is a hollow alternative. It is a dangerous and threatening place where there is no truth and there are no values and there is just the raw power of the state and so it is important for us to stand up for our faith and all faiths and their ability to be professed in a public way.”
Santorum’s speech was well received by the crowd, despite his departure from the prepared notes. “I thought it was incredible,” Diament said.
Santorum said he departed from the prepared text because he rarely reads from his notes. Diament attributed the change to Santorum’s speaking from the heart.
Santorum told the crowd that President Bush was depending on the Jewish community’s support in the fight against terrorism. “It will be the support of those who understand and have seen it in Israel, who have seen it through those eyes, who have to educate us Americans,” Santorum said.
While Santorum supports a lowering of the church-state law in America, he warned against granting too much power to Islamic leaders in Iraq. “Without a religiously pluralistic society we won’t solve the problems we’re confronted with,” Santorum said.
“An Islamic Republic of Iraq is not an acceptable formula,” he told the Forward.