Published in The New York Times Magazine
May 22, 2005
Rick Santorum, the boyish-looking 47-year-old senator from Pennsylvania, could not, in more decorous political times, have risen to a position of much power in Congress. He has been impatient and sometimes impertinent -- the political equivalent of the too-rough kid on the playground who either doesn't know the rules of the game or just doesn't care to follow them. In the House in the early 1990's, he fell in with a band of junior Republicans (nicknamed the Gang of Seven) who pushed aggressive investigations of both Democrats and Republicans. Elected to the more mannered Senate in 1994, Santorum took to the floor just months into his tenure displaying a sign for several days that read ''Where's Bill?'' to spotlight what he perceived as President Clinton's lack of leadership on balancing the federal budget. (Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, commented that the young senator's style seemed more appropriate for ''an alehouse or beer tavern.'') In a much-publicized interview in 2003, he argued that the Supreme Court should not overturn state sodomy laws that ban homosexual sex and suggested that such a ruling would create a justification for bigamy, polygamy and incest. At one point, he even raised the specter of bestiality, using the phrase ''man on dog.''
Santorum has not so much accommodated himself to Washington as the city, stylistically and politically, has moved in his direction. He became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 2000, his party's third-ranking leadership position. If he wins a third Senate term in 2006, he will most likely move up to Republican whip, the No. 2 spot. His influence already exceeds his rank. At a time when overt expressions of religiosity are increasingly a part of politics, Santorum is, with the exception of President Bush, the nation's pre-eminent faith-based politician -- a devout Catholic so valued by religious conservatives of all faiths that Time magazine recently included him on its list of America's ''25 Most Influential Evangelicals.'' Santorum told me that the recognition surprised him, but it also clearly pleased him. ''What that tells you,'' he said, ''is that I'm out front on a lot of issues that matter to people of faith.''
Sean Reilly, a former aide to Santorum in the Senate and now a political consultant in Philadelphia, said that he has come to view his former boss in other than political terms. ''Rick Santorum is a Catholic missionary,'' he said. ''That's what he is. He's a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate.''
Santorum's energy, intelligence and self-confidence -- he is a man of convictions, not doubts -- all serve to enhance his power. His leadership position puts him in charge of ''message.'' Lately he has been talking about issues of poverty, and the initiatives he put forward in March, bundled in the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda (tax breaks to increase giving to faith-based and community charities; a ''level playing field'' for faith-based groups; programs to promote fatherhood, strengthen families and mentor children of inmates), were consistent with his conservative values.
Few doubt that these ideas come from a place of feeling. But they are also politically potent, a compass for where the Republican Party wants to go: right at ''values'' voters in the heart of what has long been considered safe Democratic territory. And Santorum has been something of a trailblazer in this regard, despite his reputation as one of Congress's most partisan and polarizing figures. When he last ran in 2000, he was endorsed by The Philadelphia Tribune, the city's largest black newspaper, and also by the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. The support did not translate into many votes, but in a ''light blue'' state like Pennsylvania, it is enough for a Republican just to chip away, to cut into the huge plurality that a Democrat must take away from a city like Philadelphia -- much as President Bush did in November in the decisive state of Ohio, where his narrow victory was partly attributed to winning 16 percent of the black vote, better than the 9 percent he won in 2000.
''The president worked at this same game among African-Americans and even more so among Hispanics in November,'' says Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat who has worked with Santorum on faith-based initiatives. ''Small changes can make a big difference in national and state elections.''
Santorum will need to search for votes in every niche and subsegment of the electorate, because even as he grows in stature nationally, he is endangered in his own state. Pennsylvania has voted for a Democrat in four consecutive presidential elections. It has a Democratic governor, and its other senator, Arlen Specter, is a pro-choice moderate Republican. Santorum's race is likely to be the featured national political event next year in terms of attention, money and passion -- largely because the Democrats would so dearly love to vanquish him. They would, in fact, consider his defeat a kind of trophy. ''He has become to many people the apotheosis of the uncompromising, hard-right senator,'' Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told me. ''When I go to places in any part of the country, people ask me: Can we beat Santorum?''
Even his Democratic challenger signifies Santorum's influence. The national party and Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania have chosen Robert Casey Jr., an abortion opponent, a Catholic and the son of the late Gov. Robert Casey Sr., who was barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his antiabortion views. (Casey Sr. was the defendant in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion it initially found in Roe v. Wade.) Santorum trails Casey in early polls, but in one sense he has already won: no matter who wins the election, his position on abortion, Santorum's central issue, will be represented in Washington.
Santorum is about 6-foot-2 and fit-looking from regular games of tennis. He has an approachable, often wisecracking manner, nearly the opposite of the stereotypically imperious senator. Staff members address him as Boss, or sometimes just Rick. He is quick-witted and tart enough to be a favored guest on Don Imus's morning radio show. When he speaks in public, he often stands with his hands stuffed in the trouser pockets of his suit, as if he is still growing accustomed to business attire. He projects a kinetic rather than a contemplative aura, and his hectic schedule -- rapid-fire meetings in his Senate offices, some lasting no longer than five minutes; phone calls and photo ops between meetings; power walks through the corridors of Congress to cast votes -- seems to invigorate rather than fatigue him.
Even when he talks to visitors in his private office, he is not entirely still; he sits on a rocker just in front of his desk and gently sways. ''What are you guys here for?'' I heard him ask a small group waiting to speak to him at his Capitol Hill office. They were from a dental association, wanting to lobby him about proposed legislation that would allow nondentists to do extractions on indigenous populations in Alaska. (They were worried that it might start a trend that would migrate down to the Lower 48.) Santorum listened for a short time, then got right to the point: ''So you want me to make sure this doesn't pass?''
Santorum has never entirely shed his image as someone not quite fit for polite political company -- he is the senator as hyperactive political pugilist, quick to engage in combat, slow to yield the floor, a little too eager to crush opponents. His instinct runs more toward total victory than to meeting somewhere in the middle. He has become important, a man for the political times, partly because he understands the Senate's courtly veneer as just that -- a fiction. He likes to fight from the extremes and disdains political moderation as wishy-washiness. He respects Democrats like Representative Henry Waxman of California; Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; and the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- determined, passionate liberals. ''They're out there because they really believe this,'' he said. ''This is from their core. They're true believers, God bless them. That's what political discourse is all about. You bring in your moral code, or worldview, and I bring in mine.''
Santorum said he believes he has forged better relations with Senate Democrats, and Lieberman had kind words. ''People associate him just with these issues,'' he said, referring to Santorum's right-wing positions. ''But he is more complex than that. He has a faith-based concern about poverty, and he's prepared to fight for more money than the administration wants to allot.'' But a Democratic senator who would talk only on the condition his name not be used said: ''I'm shocked to see him in leadership, because of his comportment and general disdain for everybody else. There have to be moments of compromise, but with him, it's his way or no way. He really is doctrinaire and sanctimonious.''
A long list of Democratic senators declined to talk, in most cases, I was told by staff members, out of a sense of senatorial civility; if they had nothing good to say, they preferred not to be quoted. But there is another reason, perhaps, for their timidity: Santorum is associated, above all, with faith, an issue the Democrats are struggling to put words to. Taking him on would require talking about faith as forthrightly as he does; it would mean defining its place in public life without seeming to oppose religion itself. (The Democrats' difficulty with this very issue was on display in the Terri Schiavo case, when they were notably silent, and compliant, even as Republicans took positions opposed by most Americans, according to polls.)
In the summer of 1999, Santorum gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington titled ''The Necessity of Truth.'' It can be read as a distillation of his philosophy. He began by identifying what he considers an oddity of American culture, the ''paradox,'' he called it, ''of a people that strive to be both religious and nonjudgmental.'' He then moved on to his central theme -- that Americans of faith feel constrained from expressing their views in ''the public square,'' where legislation and public policy are debated.
''How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when his moral code is flouted?'' he asked that day. ''To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes? How is it possible that there exists so little space in the public square for expressions of faith and the standards that follow from belief in a transcendent God?''
The United States has a higher percentage of churchgoers than any industrialized nation, a higher percentage of professed believers and a vast diversity of religious communities -- all implying a widespread freedom to worship. But a key to understanding Santorum (and many other religious conservatives) is to recognize his sincere belief that he is playing defense. As a person of faith, he feels under attack, even victimized. He has stepped forward as a defender of the unborn, of religious Americans whose voices have been stifled and of cherished institutions that he considers not only under assault but also breakable.
Marriage -- defined as the union between one man and one woman -- falls into the fragile category. Santorum supports a Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, which he equates to ''messing with the basic family unit.'' He says he does not believe that a right to privacy -- the basis of court decisions legalizing abortion and overturning sodomy laws -- can truly be found in the Constitution, and he says he fears that the same legal reasoning could be employed to legalize gay marriage. Returning in 2003 to the Heritage Foundation to speak on ''The Necessity of Marriage,'' he said: ''The notion of a right to privacy is not about the common good, but about 'me.' Starting during the sexual revolution with contraception, it quickly evolved to abortion, and now it has found its way into today's marriage debate.''
To Santorum, who is married and the father of six children (as well as one who died shortly after birth), marriage is primarily about procreation and child rearing, and a union without at least that possibility need not be legally sanctioned. ''Society's interest in marriage is the future,'' he told me. ''It is the next generation. It is in providing a stable environment for the raising of children. That's why we give marriage a special status, not because people like to hang out together and have fun.''
Santorum rarely argues from a purely religious viewpoint. His line of reasoning usually goes like this: The founding fathers were men of faith. They believed in a nation based on traditional, religiously derived values, the same ''moral absolutes'' that he finds in his faith, and to diverge from them is to undermine the health of American society. The same reasoning, taken to its extreme, edges toward treating the Constitution as a kind of Christian document, but Santorum doesn't go quite that far.
When I asked him if he viewed gay marriage as a threat to his own marriage, he answered quickly. ''Yes, absolutely,'' he said. ''It threatens my marriage. It threatens all marriages. It threatens the traditional values of this country.''
Santorum is not cautious in the positions he takes or the language he uses, and to his credit, he rarely backs off statements that, upon seeing print, can seem somewhat bizarre. He is more likely to expand on them. In 2002, in a little-noticed interview that took place in Rome, Santorum told National Catholic Reporter, a U.S.-based weekly, that he considered George W. Bush, a Methodist, to be ''the first Catholic president of the United States.'' (His remark was reminiscent of the novelist Toni Morrison's saying that Bill Clinton was the nation's first black president, although an obvious difference is that there actually has been a Catholic president.) Santorum explained his claim to me: ''What I meant was if you look at the two major issues of the church, it's sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage and the family -- and third is care for the poor. And you have a president who is consistent with Catholic social teaching on all of these issues.''
And what about John F. Kennedy? Santorum says he believes that in a political sense, Kennedy shed his Catholicism. (Kennedy's most famous statement on church and state was: ''I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.'') ''I can understand and even defend him in some respects for doing so,'' Santorum said. ''There was still a very anti-Catholic bias, certainly among Southerners.'' Other Catholic politicians, he continued, ''have sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing.''
Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, is far from Santorum on most social issues but close to him personally. A Catholic, she has attended the catechism classes he holds in the Capitol. She wasn't familiar with his statement in National Catholic Reporter and let out a little chortle upon hearing it. ''That is so vintage Rick,'' she said. ''One of the things I like best about him is he is completely authentic. I would draw the line differently than where he does. But he believes there should be more of an intertwining of government and religion, and he believes it passionately.''
I talked to Santorum several times over the course of a month in Washington, and I also traveled with him one day to Allentown, a struggling, midsize city about an hour north of Philadelphia. The core of the city has become largely Hispanic, mainly Puerto Rican. The people he encountered spoke to him, at times, as if he were a visiting holy man. ''You're a man of Christian principles and values, and our people will embrace you because your values are our values,'' Wanda Mercado-Arroyo, a Republican and community activist, told him as they rode in a car between events. Santorum just sort of nodded and smiled.
Santorum is considered a keen strategist, someone who knows voting patterns across his state down to the precinct level. He likes to tell the story of how he initiated a major revitalization effort in Chester, an impoverished city south of Philadelphia, during his first term, then actually pulled fewer votes from there in the next election. So he does not assume that coming to a place like this will instantly yield votes. ''You hear 'public servant,' and everyone just sort of blows over the 'servant' part,'' he said when I asked about the political motivations of his antipoverty initiatives. ''But I really do take it seriously. I want to make a difference in people's lives and serve others.'' Later he noted another motivation: ''I want to see if what I believe in works.''
Part of politics, though, is persuading, and a politician persuades over time. He seeds an area so that he, or even some other candidate of the same party, will reap the bounty, if not in the next election then perhaps in the one after that. The main event in Allentown was on a Monday morning at the Church of God, a congregation of Hispanic Pentecostals. It was not a big gathering, just a couple of dozen people. Santorum spoke in front of the pulpit, with a stained-glass window and a portrait of Jesus behind him. He seemed to want to talk about economic development and President Bush's plan to partly privatize Social Security, which he enthusiastically supports, but many of the questions were on social issues.
To a woman who wanted to know how soon Roe v. Wade could be overturned, he said it was ''not imminent'' and called for ''support for women with unintended pregnancies'' and for ''love for all God's children.'' Several times he used the phrase ''culture of life,'' which for religious conservatives generally encompasses opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia (but not always opposition to the death penalty, which Santorum supports). Someone else in the audience complained that the local schools were substandard, and Santorum used that as an opportunity to touch a broader theme. ''What's needed,'' he replied, ''is to give parents real control, as opposed to what we have today, the control in the hands of the bureaucrats and the experts.''
His answer was an echo of Republican attacks on federal judges, the news media and perceived elites of all kinds, and I asked him about it later. Why would the parents in this struggling community, or any community, be better at running a school district than professionals trained to do just that? I began to say that in my own children's schools, the curriculum is designed by --
''Experts!'' he interjected. ''The curriculums are designed by experts. But even though they may be experts, they are narrow experts.''
At the Church of God that day, I met Sandra Vazquez-Zawistowski, a 41-year-old mother of two and the secretary of the local Latino Republican Committee. I asked about the party affiliation of the Hispanic voters in her area, and she replied, in a tone of serene confidence, that most of them were not currently Republicans -- but they would be just as soon as they received the correct information. ''They tend to vote for Democrats, but we're explaining to them that they are actually Republicans,'' she said. ''They are pro-life, pro-marriage between a man and a woman, which is what Republicans believe, so eventually they will vote that way.''
Santorum's parents were employees of the Veterans Administration -- his father was a psychologist, his mother a nurse -- and for most of his childhood he lived in a small house on the grounds of a V. A. hospital near Pittsburgh. Prayers were said at dinner and bedtime, and the family attended church every Sunday, no excuses accepted. ''You had to basically be dead not to go,'' Santorum told me. ''If you could watch television, if you could get up and walk, you could go. You went unless you were to the point of coughing constantly and you would infect the whole church.''
Even so, Santorum recalls the Catholicism he grew up with to have been more dutiful than intense, part of how the family defined itself but not at the center of its daily life. Nor were the Santorums particularly political. His younger brother, Dan (he also has an older sister), describes them as ''the ultimate sports family.'' ''That's what we did; whatever was on, we all got together and watched. I didn't even know if my parents were Republicans or Democrats, and I don't know if Rick knew either.''
Santorum went to Penn State and majored in political science, and then for five years after college and during law school, he worked for Doyle Corman, a moderate Republican state senator in central Pennsylvania. ''My husband and I are both pro-choice,'' Becky Corman says. ''One of the interesting things about Rick is, the whole time he worked for us, we didn't know what his views were on that issue.''
Becky Corman was among several people who told me they assumed Santorum came to a deeper Catholic faith and some of his more conservative views through the influence of his wife, Karen Garver Santorum, who grew up in a family of 12 children. Santorum, though, said that was not accurate and that his wife's family had been similar to his own -- churchgoing Catholics but not intense in their faith. ''I met her after I moved to Pittsburgh. I had gone through a time when I wasn't even particularly dutiful, during college and after college,'' he said. ''I was sort of a single guy, just trying to get what I thought I needed for whatever career I thought I wanted to pursue. Karen was going through a similar experience. So we sort of went through all of this together.''
Through his 20's and early 30's, Santorum earned an M.B.A. and a law degree, started a job at a Pittsburgh law firm (where he briefly lobbied for the World Wrestling Federation), then twice won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. After winning his first six-year term in the Senate, he said: ''I finally had time to think about: What am I going to do here? What kind of senator am I going to be? What kind of father, husband?''
Dan Santorum, who is C.E.O. of the Professional Tennis Registry, an organization of teaching pros, said he considered his brother's deepening involvement in religion to be a function of his personality -- specifically, of his almost congenital inability to do anything halfheartedly. ''Rick has always been that way, in anything he has ever done,'' he said. ''Card games. Board games. Grades. Whatever it is he's doing, he's completely caught up in it. We were, for the time, good practicing Catholics, but Rick took it further.''
Santorum attends Mass most weekday mornings at St. Joseph's church, a couple of blocks from the Capitol. On Sundays, he worships at St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, Va., which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, among other prominent Washington Catholics, also attends and where Mass is celebrated in Latin by priests who face the cross, their backs to the congregation. He helped convert a fellow senator, Sam Brownback of Kansas, to Catholicism, and he also recently organized a study group for fellow Catholics in Congress, which is led by a local priest. (Only Republicans, however, have been invited.)
In college and during much of Santorum's tenure with Doyle Corman, his main interest in politics was tactical; now the tactics have been put in service to his beliefs. Not surprisingly, he was one of the lead senators urging federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. He told me that at one point he informed Bill Frist, the majority leader, that he would keep the Senate in session through its Easter break if lawmakers tried to adjourn without first stepping in.
''I said to the leader: 'We're not leaving here until we pass this,' '' he told me. I've got a hundred budget amendments that I'm willing to file, and we'll vote for days because I'll just keep filing. Let the folks know we'll be here for a long time.' ''
Rick and Karen Santorum, a former nurse and a nonpracticing attorney, have six children between the ages of 2 and 14, and live in Leesburg, Va., about an hour from Washington and as close to Washington as they could afford a home big enough for their family. (Karen Santorum would not be interviewed for this article.) Santorum drives himself to and from Capitol Hill in a 2001 Chevy TrailBlazer. He will not work Sundays, except in extraordinary circumstances, and he rarely stays overnight when traveling because he does not like to be away from his family. He tends a large vegetable garden and several fruit trees, cuts his own grass and does home repairs. Santorum says he does not want his home-state voters to think he feels impoverished on his $162,100 Senate salary, but it is clear that money is a concern and that he is almost certainly one of the least well-off among the 100 senators.
''We live paycheck to paycheck, absolutely,'' he says. Does he have money set aside for college? ''No. None. I always tell my kids: 'Work hard. We'll take out loans. Whatever.' '' He volunteers that his parents help out financially. ''They're by no means wealthy -- they're two retired V. A. employees -- but they'll send a check every now and then. They realize things are a little tighter for us.''
Santorum is far too competitive to want to lose his Senate seat, but he operates in Washington like a man who is not afraid of defeat and, on some level, would welcome its benefits. More than once in our conversations, he mentioned that losing would not be without a financial upside. ''Everyone says, 'Senator, the worst thing that could happen to you is you could lose and spend more time with your kids and help pay for college,' '' he told me. On the other hand, the advantage of winning yet again when you're not supposed to -- Santorum won election to the House in 1990 by beating a seven-term Democratic incumbent, and he views several of his other races as longshot victories -- is that ''it gives you the freedom to do what you truly believe is right,'' he said. A Senate aide who refused to go on the record about a fellow Republican said to me, ''He's pretty vulnerable, right?'' marveling that Santorum has been out front on Bush's plan to partly privatize Social Security, which polls indicate is unpopular in Pennsylvania and most of the rest of the nation.
The Santorum children are home-schooled by Karen Santorum, but the family benefited from more than $70,000 provided by the state and the Penn Hills School District, outside of Pittsburgh, for several years of tuition to the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. State law requires school districts to pay 80 percent of tuition for students in their district enrolled in cyberschools, but Penn Hills and the state are looking into whether the Santorums must repay the money, since the Santorums, despite owning a home there, live in Virginia full time. Santorum told me that he considered this squabble politically inspired, and that because he owns a house in Penn Hills and paid real-estate taxes there, he was entitled to the charter-school tuition.
In 1999, the family received a malpractice award after Karen Santorum sued a chiropractor in Virginia. She testified that she sought treatment for back pain after childbirth in 1996 and suffered a ruptured disk from an improperly administered spinal manipulation. Santorum has been a vocal critic of large malpractice awards and has backed measures to limit damages. Karen Santorum asked for $500,000 and was awarded $350,000 by a jury. A judge finally reduced the award to $175,000, of which Santorum said they received about $75,000 after their lawyer took his share. ''I'm not against all lawsuits,'' Santorum said. ''I think they're appropriate where the case warrants it, and this one did. It was not frivolous.''
The childbirth in 1996 was a source of terrible heartbreak -- the couple were told by doctors early in the pregnancy that the baby Karen was carrying had a fatal defect and would survive only for a short time outside the womb. According to Karen Santorum's book, ''Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum,'' she later developed a life-threatening intrauterine infection and a fever that reached nearly 105 degrees. She went into labor when she was 20 weeks pregnant. After resisting at first, she allowed doctors to give her the drug Pitocin to speed the birth. Gabriel lived just two hours.
What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish -- others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. ''Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!'' Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. ''Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, 'This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.' ''
John F. Kennedy wrote in 1959: ''It is my firm belief that there should be separation of church and state as we understand it in the United States -- that is, that both church and state should be free to operate, without interference from each other in their respective areas of jurisdiction. We live in a liberal, democratic society which embraces wide varieties of belief and disbelief.''
It is fair to say that Santorum believes in a more complementary relationship between church and state -- respective jurisdictions, yes, but with many more bridges and emissaries connecting them. Aside from his opposition to abortion and his strong views on other ''culture of life'' questions, the concept of government giving to religious charities -- faith-based help -- is the issue closest to his heart. He says that his faith taught him never to equate poverty or lack of achievement with character, so it is a given, to Santorum, that some people will always need help. ''We always did things for the poor,'' he said. ''I remember my dad always saying, 'If you have extra money, put it in the poor box at the back of the church.' ''
He has a different way of giving now and, he says, a more powerful means to help. One afternoon in Philadelphia, the Rev. Herb Lusk, a friend and ally of Santorum's who was known as the praying tailback when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles, showed me around his church and nonprofit social-service agency, called People for People, which takes up all eight floors of the city's former traffic-court building. The enterprise is impressive in its scale. Lusk provides job training, child care, G.E.D. tutoring and mentoring to children of inmates. He also oversees a day-care program, a 700-student charter school and a credit union. The top floor of his building, a catering hall called the View, affords a panorama of Philadelphia and is rented out for weddings and parties. Lusk said his nonprofit is acquiring hundreds of parcels of land in the area, and under what has been dubbed the Triangle Plan, it plans to build a mix of housing and retail stores. In all, Lusk employs more than 200 people.
''What you're looking at is a faith-based nonprofit empire,'' Lusk said. ''I don't say that to be braggadocious. That's just a fact.''
Much of what People for People does amounts to work that has essentially been outsourced from government, just as it has been, for years, to Catholic Social Services, Jewish Family Service and other large nonprofit agencies. Lusk has caseworkers, just like the state welfare department. He told me that his organization receives about $10 million a year in public money; Santorum has also helped seed the People for People Community Development Credit Union by depositing $250,000 in campaign funds, for which he asked no interest.
''Rick is my friend,'' said Lusk, who is black, adding that his support of Santorum and other Republicans has caused him to be called an Uncle Tom, and worse. ''Oh, it was taboo. I was out of touch with my people and so forth. But Rick's support, it doesn't go away, so you have to pay attention to it. Why is this man continuing to be here, to spend time here, even as he gets killed in Philadelphia? I'm sure he would like to win Philadelphia if he could, but that's not realistic.''
Government giving to religious charities is not new, but the Bush administration's focus on it, and intense efforts by Santorum and others to expand the programs, are new. Also, Santorum, Bush and other Republican advocates for faith-based giving have worked to expand the base of those who receive money, beyond the traditional big charities that know how to write grant applications and have established relationships with government agencies. Depending on how you look at it, this is either good social policy, good politics, a dangerous blurring of church and state, an expansion of political patronage -- or some combination of all these things. ''They've leveled the playing field for the mom-and-pop shop to compete for the resources,'' Lusk said, although he has grown well beyond that.
Lusk went on to say that he and Santorum ''agree on matters of faith,'' and that social issues were part of what bound them. When I asked which ones, he said: ''Gay marriage, mainly. That's nonnegotiable.''
Lusk showed me several classrooms with new computers lined up side by side, hundreds of them altogether. They are used for training in the welfare-to-work program and are ''state of the art,'' he said, which he insists on because he does not believe anyone will hire people trained on inferior equipment. But as Lusk was leading me through his complex, almost all of the computers were sitting idle. It occurred to me that if this were a government agency, someone could very well view these empty, computer-filled classrooms, fairly or unfairly, as an example of government waste.
Lusk explained that he must ''put up a firewall'' between the work he does for his taxpayer-financed nonprofit and his role as the spiritual leader of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. ''You're not allowed to proselytize,'' Lusk said. ''However, ultimately, I am a church man. I'm not trying to win people over to the Philadelphia Eagles, or George W., or Rick Santorum. I'm trying to win people for the Lord.''
His solution is to feed the clients of his nonprofit agency a free lunch every day at his church. ''And there will always be someone at that lunch giving their testimony about their relationship with the Lord,'' he said. ''That's the way we do it. Jesus always operated around food, banquets and so forth. It's always been a nice attraction.''
In Santorum's ideal world, ministers who receive federal money for social-service programs and who feel constrained by regulations against proselytizing -- who must ''take off one hat and put on another,'' as Lusk put it -- would be liberated to be men of God no matter whose dime is financing their good works. Catholic Charities, which Santorum says he believes has become ''basically just another social-service agency, because they've sort of lost their identity,'' would regain its Catholic character.
Santorum's view is that government programs to help people in need are almost destined to fail, and that a social worker, a substance-abuse counselor or a nurse receiving a paycheck from a faith-based group, rather than from government, will be more caring and more likely to get results. This seems like a stereotype -- a government-employed social worker may, after all, have the same training as the one working for a charity and the same urgent calling to help others -- but Santorum nonetheless sees the secular world as intrinsically cold and unfeeling. Filled with experts.
''The whole idea of funding people of faith is not just to provide good human services,'' he told me. ''It's also to provide good human services with that additional touch, if you will, with that aspect of healing that comes through that spiritual interaction. If you talk to folks who are out there on the front lines fighting these battles in the neighborhoods, this is an intricate part of turning lives around, particularly in people who have really hit the bottom. You find very few who rise back up without some element of something bigger that's helping them. You can't ignore the importance of the spiritual part of someone's life and say you're going to solve their problems. You're throwing good money after bad.''
All of this is a matter of sharp debate between people who believe the founding fathers intended a strict division between church and state, a distanced neutrality, and those who, like Santorum, argue that they actually had a preference for faith in public life but simply did not want to establish an official state church. At ground level, these questions play out as more than abstract philosophical debates. One area of conflict is whether religious organizations receiving federal money should be allowed to hire according to their ''belief systems'' -- to discriminate, for example, against job seekers who are non-Christians, nonbelievers, gay or even divorced.
This is not considered a matter of settled law; a Supreme Court ruling allows religious groups to consider faith in hiring, but future rulings may have to determine whether they can do so when using federal funds. The Bush administration issued an executive order that allows religious organizations in receipt of taxpayer money to ''take their faith into account when making employment decisions'' -- an edict that Senator Edward M. Kennedy has characterized as ''permitting federally funded discrimination.''
Santorum told me that no organization, even one using tax dollars, should have to employ someone ''who is at cross purposes with the mission of what the charity is.'' He would go a step further in loosening the reins on charities by letting them read from Bibles and speak of their faith. He said he did not see the difference between a Bible and ''the teachings of Aristotle -- that's a philosophy of life.'' He added: ''Here you have a book that's been pretty well tested over time. So to say, here are some passages from the Bible that may help you, I don't necessarily see that as a negative.''
We were in Allentown, eating breakfast at a diner, when I relayed to Santorum his former aide's observation that he is like a Catholic missionary in the Senate. He winced. ''I don't know about that,'' he said.
But Santorum does seem increasingly comfortable putting his personal faith out front. He not only pushed the Senate to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, but he also traveled to Florida and prayed with her parents. (News reports noted that he attended fund-raisers for his Senate campaign while he was in Florida.) Just a few hours after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Santorum's Senate office released a statement of congratulations that went well beyond the routine offering of prayers and best wishes. It read, in part, ''I pray for Pope Benedict XVI as he begins his new role as the most reverent disciple of our Lord here on earth.''
In an interview that same day on CNN, Santorum aligned himself not so much with American Catholics as with more traditional-minded ones in the third world. With evident approval of Ratzinger, he said: ''What you saw is an affirmation by the cardinals that the church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years.''
There is one issue, the death penalty, on which Santorum would seem to be out of step with the Vatican. Pope John Paul II declared in 1995 that ''the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.'' (He also opposed the Iraq war.) In March, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made a renewed call to end the death penalty. Santorum has focused on the word ''innocent'' in Pope John Paul's statement, in line with some conservative Catholic theologians who have written that the pope's statement was ''prudential,'' as opposed to a change in the doctrine of the church -- and therefore not a moral proposition that must be followed.
''I would argue that my position is not inconsistent,'' Santorum told me. ''One is innocent life and one is not. One has done harm, has committed crimes, and a person has to pay for the injustice they have caused. I have said publicly that I think in the 80's and early 90's we probably got a little carried away with the death penalty. To me, it should be used only in the most heinous situations.''
Santorum is not a reader of Scripture -- ''I've never read the Bible cover to cover; maybe I should have'' -- and has no passages he clings to when seeking spiritual guidance. ''I'm a Catholic, so I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm not someone who has verses he can pop out. That's not how I interact with the faith.''
He reads magazines and journals offering commentary on religion, among them First Things, which is edited by the theologian Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister and a convert to Catholicism. In that and other publications, Santorum can find ample intellectual support not only for his beliefs but also for his duty to take them public. After Santorum's controversial remarks about homosexuality in the Associated Press interview in 2003, Neuhaus, writing in First Things (which is written and read by Catholics as well as evangelicals), defended Santorum's statements as an example of ''Catholic witness in the public square.''
Neuhaus argues, as Santorum and many other social conservatives do, that more forthright expressions of faith in political life do not represent a departure from traditional civic culture but a return to it. ''The idea that religion is an intrusion on public life is a relatively recent idea,'' Neuhaus told me. ''This is a return to normality. This is all moral vocabulary.''
But what some hear as moral vocabulary is received, by others, as an inundation of religious-tinged policies, legislation and political rhetoric -- and in some cases, as an infringement on privacy and the right to live by your own moral code. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was almost apoplectic in talking about Santorum. ''He is a very, very radical individual,'' he said, ''who wants to impose his religious dogma through law and legislation on everybody in America.''
Some of Santorum's supporters, however, say they believe that his faith leads him into terrain that has been abandoned by other social conservatives. David Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says he has come to believe that, on social issues, the hard right of the Republican party is concerned too much with behavior, primarily abortion and homosexuality, and too little with poverty. He considered Santorum the exception. ''He was a singular voice in Republican leadership fighting for antipoverty legislation,'' Kuo said. ''He kept pushing it. I was in meetings when people would start rolling their eyes when he started talking about it. It is very much at odds with the public perception of him. He fought behind the scenes where nobody could see it. His compassion is genuine.''
Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska and now president of New School University, had some bitter clashes with Santorum when they served together. He says now: ''I've come to believe that he is sincerely and impressively a man of faith. He is driven by his personal desire to do good. But at some point, money matters. We're not even close to spending enough to solve social problems. I don't know what he can do with his own party, but maybe he'll shame the liberals into doing more.''
But it is no easy thing to be a low-tax, small-government Republican and an antipoverty crusader. Santorum has fought for more money for the community-development-block-grant program, a traditional source of grants to nonprofit groups in cities, which the Bush administration has cut. The package of faith-based legislation Santorum has sponsored with Lieberman, beginning in 2002, has yet to become law. President Bush, by executive order, has moved some of it forward, but the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act -- which would provide tax incentives designed to spur giving to faith-based and community groups -- remains stalled.
To this point, Santorum's impact has been much more in the realm of politics than lawmaking. ''When you have a budget crunch, everything gets squeezed,'' he said. ''I respect that. You just have to scrap and claw for whatever little money you can for the programs you believe are the most important.''
He has sometimes cast votes -- as nearly every lawmaker in Washington does amid an atmosphere of gamesmanship and misdirection -- that seem inconsistent with his stated principles. Earlier this year, Santorum voted against a Democratic amendment to a bankruptcy bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25, which would seemingly be one of the more efficient ways to get money to poor people. He offered his own amendment to hike it to $6.25 as part of a package that included tax cuts for small businesses and exemptions on overtime pay for some workers currently eligible for it.
Both Santorum's plan and one offered by Senator Edward Kennedy failed, and the minimum wage remains at $5.15 -- where it has stood since 1997. Neither proposal was offered with much serious hope it would pass. Santorum voted for his own bill, but told reporters, ''I would hope candidly that we didn't pass either of these at this time.''
In February, the presidential adviser and Republican strategist Karl Rove made a plea for Santorum to a couple of thousand people gathered for a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. ''If you're in a state that doesn't have a complicated election picture next year,'' he said, and if ''you might have a little time on your hands in 2006 come Election Day to do something good for the country, my recommendation is to make your reservation right now for a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn someplace in Pennsylvania to be helping this good guy get re-elected. Because he is going to be a target.''
Republicans are desperate to save Santorum; Democrats are so burning to bring him down that party leaders quickly rallied around the socially conservative Bob Casey Jr. as his opponent. When their preference became known, another strong candidate, Barbara Hafer -- a onetime state treasurer and pro-choice former Republican who had recently become a Democrat -- stepped aside.
The Casey name is something like a brand in Pennsylvania, so much so that politically unknown Caseys, unrelated to the ''real'' Caseys, have won office. So Santorum is in the unusual position of being a two-term U.S. senator who enjoys no name-recognition advantage over his opponent. A statewide poll taken in April showed Casey with a 14-point lead and also indicated that two factors -- Santorum's positions on Bush's Social Security proposal and his prominence in the Terri Schiavo case -- had driven his numbers down. (Santorum's races tend to turn nasty quickly, in no small part because of the vitriol he inspires in opponents. Casey's campaign manager recently blasted him for being ''the only member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo's hospice.'')
A poll taken more than a year and a half before an election may not be particularly meaningful except to confirm what was already known: Santorum will have no easy time staying in office.
I asked Santorum what he thought the race would be about. ''In terms of issues, it's too early to say,'' he answered. ''But I'm the incumbent, so basically, it'll be about me.''
We were in the car in Allentown, and one of his children had called him on his cellphone, looking for guidance on how to prepare the garden. ''Just clear weeds, honey,'' he said, ''and when I get home we'll talk about what we're going to plant.''
When he hung up, he turned his attention back to his Senate race. ''I'm O.K. with it being about me,'' he continued. ''I didn't come to Washington just to come back here. That's never been what I'm about. I've got other things I can do. As a U.S. senator, I've been given a gift of being able to make a difference in people's lives, a trust. I'm O.K. with the people deciding how I've done with that trust.''