On Sundays Santorum goes to Mass in Latin; but the BBC Washington correspondent says he’s a Protestant. What else will he get wrong?

I begin with a question: how much, under the tutelage of its current chief Washington correspondent, Mark Mardell, will we be able to trust the BBC’s coverage of the forthcoming American election?

I don’t just mean the usual thing one means about not trusting the BBC: that it has an inbuilt liberal bias. We all know that, and make allowances for it while continuing to rely on its news coverage. What I mean is, how competent will the coverage be? How much trouble will Mardell actually go to get his basic facts straight about the candidates, especially during the primary season now on us? Most of the current candidates are largely unknown here. Who on earth, for instance (the BBC should be able to tell us), is Rick Santorum, who has just come from nowhere to a virtual dead heat in Iowa (he lost by only 8 votes) with the much better-known and better funded Mitt Romney?

Well, according to Mark Mardell, Santorum is an “evangelical Christian”. In BBC-speak, that means a Protestant Bible belt-type fundamentalist and extreme rightwinger (ie disbeliever in central government control of economic and social affairs). The only trouble is that Mardell is just wrong: Santorum is a straight down the line Roman Catholic. He may share certain views with American evangelicals: he’s anti-Obama, anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion, among other things. Well, so am I, but that doesn’t make me an evangelical Christian, Mr Mardell (oh, and don’t for heaven’s sake riposte, dear reader, that all Catholics ought to be evangelicals, that the Church should evangelise, that in that sense there’s nothing wrong etc etc. We know exactly what the BBC means by an evangelical Christian).

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The details about Mr Santorum’s religious affiliation are right out there in the open. Just look him up in all the usual places. It is easy to discover from Wikipedia, for instance, that he usually attends a Latin Mass with his family (he has seven children, which ought to have given the game away even to the BBC) at St Catherine of Siena, Great Falls, Virginia, near Washington DC, a parish where it seems they take the sacraments seriously. They go in for regular adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; they announce on their website, under the heading “Sacrament of Holy Matrimony”, that “couples must contact a priest and begin preparation at least six months prior to the wedding” and that “living together before marriage is sinful and harmful to future marriage. Couples who are living together will be asked to live separately during the preparation time.”

This policy no doubt has the support of the parish’s best-known parishioner. Santorum is clearly well known as a committed Catholic who has made it clear that he is 100 per cent in support of the Magisterium. He is involved in the affairs of his Church. He and his wife are, inter alia, a Knight and Dame of Magistral Grace of the Knights of Malta.

I don’t know if he’s a member of Opus Dei, but he obviously supports it: in 2002 he spoke in Rome at a centenary celebration of the birth of St Josemaría Escrivá. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on that occasion, Santorum said (controversially it seems, though why I’m not sure) that the distinction between private religious conviction and public responsibility, espoused by President John F Kennedy, had caused “great harm in America”.

“All of us have heard people say [he declared] ‘I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it’s not right for somebody else?’ It sounds good, but it is the corruption of freedom of conscience.” He had, specifically, been critical of Teddy Kennedy’s support for a “woman’s right to choose” abortion; and as a result was attacked by Kennedy himself, in the US Senate, for his bigotry. I have to say that he sounds to me like something of a good egg.

He has “surged” to his present prominence from nowhere. Can he keep it up? According to the Guardian, which today accorded him a lengthy profile,

He bet everything on Iowa, spending more time in the state than any other candidate and holding more than 250 events. Even two weeks ago, it looked like a gamble unlikely to pay off. But, as caucus day approached, Santorum finally began to rise as the conservatives and evangelicals he had courted so strongly flocked to his side.

Now Santorum has a chance to carve out a niche where so many have failed and become the sole conservative alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

“It is very difficult to do what Rick Santorum did. It is very impressive. There is no doubt about it,” said Pat Griffin, a political expert at St Anselm College in New Hampshire and a former adviser to a string of top Republican candidates, including George W Bush.

But now Santorum has finally persuaded the spotlight of the Republican race to shine on him, he has to be prepared for what it will find. What it reveals is one of the most socially conservative figures in the race who wears his Roman Catholicism firmly on his sleeve. Santorum takes a hardline on issues like gay marriage and abortion and has frequently courted controversy with the level of extremism [sic] that he is willing to express. It also makes him an odd man out in a race in which social issues have figured rarely in favour of a more widespread voter concern about job creation and the economy.

Mitt Romney has more money, and better name recognition: but the “religious right” doesn’t like Romney’s support for abortion or his Mormonism (neither do I; creepy, if you ask me). And even if Santorum were by some miracle to capture the Republican nomination, he then has to take on Obama, who, though a failed president, is a legendary campaigner and has (also, surely, creepy in a time of recession) one billion dollars to campaign with. Everyone says the New Hampshire Republicans won’t take to Mr Santorum: but who knows? According to a news report on the ABC website, he was warmly received at a packed first speech in the state, and

“The Santorum campaign has raised one million dollars in the last 24 hours and the former Pennsylvania senator told the audience that the amount doubled what they have brought in this entire campaign. An aide said the money was almost all small dollar contributions.”

Obama, don’t forget, originally came from nowhere. Santorum is still an outsider, but the Irish bookmaker, Paddy Power, says that his odds have dramatically improved. According to the Washington Times, Mr Santorum saw his standing improve in the past day, going from 14-1 odds Tuesday morning to win the GOP’s nomination to 11-1 odds by Wednesday, good enough for second best.

Texas Rep Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who previously had second- and third-best odds, now have dropped to third and fourth – Mr Paul tumbling from 7-1 to 14-1, and Mr Gingrich dropping from 8-1 to 16-1.

Paddy Power now lists Mr Santorum with second-best odds to win New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday – a stunning turnaround for someone who has barely registered in polls taken there all last year.

The one thing you can say about American politics is that nothing’s certain, even for those who – unlike me and Mark Mardell – really do know what they’re talking about. That’s what makes the whole thing so endlessly fascinating, even to those safely on this side of the big pond.

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