As Adele Stan noted in this space yesterday, Rick Santorum reached a new summit Saturday in his efforts to paint the president and “liberals” generally as secularist enemies of Christianity. In a speech at a luncheon sponsored by the Ohio Christian Alliance (successor to the Ohio branch of the Christian Coalition), Santorum used an interesting phrase to describe Obama’s belief-system:

Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.

Some observers immediately connected these comments to the widespread myth among Obama-haters that the president is actually a Muslim.

Thus, when Santorum, under questioning about these remarks, said “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian,” it probably looked to some as though he was backing down a bit from the thrust of his attacks.

I don’t think so.

As I noted in a post last week that has drawn some fire from conservative bloggers, Santorum is on record identifying with the fairly common fundamentalist belief (shared by some “traditionalist” Catholics and even by secular commentators) that mainline or “liberal” Protestants have largely abandoned Christianity for man-made idols. To use Santorum’s own phrase for Obama, many conservative Christians think mainliners maintain a theology that is “not a theology based on the Bible,” but on the nefarious beliefs of such neo-pagans as the “radical environmentalists” who don’t understand God gave dominion over nature to man for his enjoyment and exploitation.

In other words, Santorum’s dog-whistle is aimed not so much at people who ignorantly believe Obama is a secret Muslim, but at people who look at Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists and Congregationalists (Obama’s own denominational background) and see infidels who don’t understand that “true” Christianity requires hard-core opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, or for that matter, environmentalism, feminism, and other departures from nineteenth century American mores. Indeed, in the 2008 Ave Maria University speech I wrote about the other day, Santorum described mainline Protestants as people who had, sadly, gone over to the enemy camp in a “spiritual war” between God and Satan.

As a Roman Catholic, of course, Rick Santorum doesn’t follow a theology that is based strictly on the Bible, either, but on centuries of (selectively applied) Church teachings that happen to coincide with those of conservative evangelical Protestants. Catholic “traditionalists” are engaged in their own parallel war with “liberal Catholics” whom they accuse of “betraying” their Church by supporting legalized contraception and/or abortion or same-sex marriage or the ordination of women.

The political alliance of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic “traditionalists” has become a familiar part of the landscape in this country, odd as it may seem to old-timers who remember the conservative Protestant hostility to JFK’s presidential candidacy on grounds that no Catholic could conscientiously support strict separation of church and state (a position conservative evangelicals have themselves now emphatically abandoned.) But it’s important to understand that all the thundering about “secularism” we hear from the religio-political Right these days represents in no small part an intra-Christian civil war by conservatives on those in every faith tradition who do not accept their elevation of “traditional” cultural values to the level of religious absolutes.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.