Mythic power of the zealots


If you think Rick Santorum is a weird, pious wackadoo, try being a female walking around certain ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel with your ankles showing.

Santorum’s near-victory in the Iowa caucuses last week raised the volume on some of his more paranoid kvetchings about the moral breakdown of society -- gay marriage being a slippery slope to marrying your pet, “Christendom” being under attack, birth control being “not OK” even for married couples. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem -- where I was last week -- the big story was about religious extremists spitting on schoolgirls.

Though the ultra-Orthodox haredim make up just 10% of the Israeli population (they’re also exempt from taxes and military service and often live on government stipends, but let’s not get into that now), their clashes with modern Orthodox and more secular Jews have been generating a disproportionate amount of noise.


The spitting incident concerned an 8-year-old who attends a modern Orthodox Jewish girls school on the border of a haredi neighborhood in a Jerusalem suburb. When she recently spoke out about the men who’ve been harassing her and her classmates for “immodest dress” (their long skirts and long sleeves apparently aren’t long enough), she shed new light on the tensions. Recent examples include a female soldier being called a whore when she refused to accommodate a haredi man’s request that she move to the back of a city bus; haredim have also bristled at police who refuse to enforce their rules about women and men walking on opposite sides of the street.

I’m not suggesting that Santorum’s saying boneheaded things about birth control or gays, or even his insisting that he meant “blah people” rather than “black people” when he was talking about government handouts, is the same as spitting on schoolgirls. But I couldn’t help but notice that just as Israel tolerates -- and even cooperates in -- the extremist behavior of a minority of its population, GOP leaders, especially in election season in the U.S., seem willing to pander to the furthest reaches of the right wing.

Sure, the wind that Iowa put beneath Santorum’s wings was roundly knocked out from under him in New Hampshire. But the fact that pundits spent the preceding week pretending to take seriously the notion that Santorum could end up as the nominee shows the degree to which the Christian right has taken on an almost mythic quality in GOP politics.

Moreover, that Santorum celebrated his momentum by scaling new heights in incendiary, nonsensical statements suggests he’s tone deaf to what people actually care about. Traipsing around New Hampshire comparing gay marriage to polygamy and citing an unnamed “poverty expert” who believes that kids whose fathers have abandoned them or are in prison are better off than kids with two same-sex parents, he seemed to forget that most of the GOP base (yes, even his base) is at least as interested in creating jobs as creating fetuses.

Gallup figures have put overall support for the right-leaning tea party at around 25% of Americans. But polls have shown that just over half of them view abortion rights unfavorably, and less than half oppose same-sex marriage and civil unions. It also happens that the National Assn. of Evangelicals has data showing that 90% of evangelical church leaders are OK with birth control. And though I haven’t been able to find a survey that asked whether childless marriages should have lesser status than procreative ones, I suspect I know where most people would come down on that.

Why does Santorum persist with his rhetoric? Well, in fairness, he’s a conservative (and an intensely literal-minded) Catholic, and he seems to believe most of it personally, even if hardly anyone else does. But zealots in Israel believe it’s OK to spit at schoolgirls, even if hardly anyone else does. In both cases, the problem is what happens to democratic principles when such personal beliefs intersect public policy.


In the U.S., we too often grant the noisiest, most threatening zealots too much power to set the agenda. We’re complicit in creating the illusion that religious fundamentalism is so rabid and so monolithic that we must appease it to keep it from turning against us. What we have in Santorum, who’s clearly banking on South Carolina rolling quite a bit holier than New Hampshire, is a man enthralled with that mythic power -- and it’s making him speak in tongues.