By Molly Worthen
Last month, when prominent evangelical pastors and political activists emerged from their Texas powwow to announce that they had anointed Rick Santorum as their standard-bearer, the blogosphere pronounced the endorsement too little, too late, and kept all sights firmly on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — until this week.
Santorum’s string of victories on Tuesday took the mainstream media by surprise: he is so extreme that they have had a hard time taking him seriously. His theocratic statements seem self-caricaturing. He has asserted that the right to privacy “does not exist,” equated homosexual sex with “man on dog” relations, and compared the campaign against same-sex marriage to the war on terror.
Yet Santorum’s surge in momentum as the primary campaign moved to the evangelical heartland was a long time coming, and not because his social positions are an exercise in garden-variety bigotry. Evangelicals’ embrace of Santorum illuminates a crucial shift in American political culture: their honeymoon with the Tea Party seems to be over. They have turned away from the cries for small government and liberty — about which they have always been ambivalent — to rekindle their love affair with theocratic Catholicism. Santorum’s statements reflect not knee-jerk prejudice, but something much more powerful: philosophically reasoned prejudice, based on centuries of Roman Catholic natural law.
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Do you want to optimize your life? Start your morning with a kale-garlic-ginger smoothie, or better yet, meditate and fast until noon. Next, hit the gym for your mixed martial arts workout and take a cold shower to activate your immune system. Then plan this summer’s vision quest: Maybe you’ll head to the jungles of Peru, where a shaman will brew you some mescaline-laced psychedelic tea — don’t worry; the intense nausea means you’re grasping new dimensions of reality.
Next, read a book on evolutionary psychology to remind yourself that you’re just a social primate with genetically programmed urges. Then read some Stoic philosophy to control those urges. Take ownership of your day and soon enough you’ll be a millionaire, running your own lifestyle coaching empire.
On the surface, this is the message of a new generation of wellness gurus, a network of podcasters centered in the Austin, Tex., area and Southern California. Yes, they are easy to mock, and their gospel of health, wealth and contentment comes with the usual moral hazards: Too much faith in self-improvement glosses over structural injustices that place real limits on what’s possible for many people.
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A recession might be just around the corner, but for experts in the field of “authoritarian studies,” these are boom times. Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has spent much of his career studying the appeal of authoritarian figures: politicians who preach xenophobia, beat up on the press and place themselves above the law while extolling “law and order” for everyone else. He is one of many scholars who believe that deep-seated psychological traits help explain voters’ attraction to such leaders. “These days,” he told me, “audiences are more receptive to the idea” than they used to be.
Image credit: Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times