Zealots, by definition, are driven by their visceral emotions. They have little respect for empirical reality. Their arguments are based not on actual facts, but on fake facts of their own contrivance.

Consider, for instance, the latest Rick Santorum fact-averse trifecta.

Granted, with less than 48 hours left on the contest clock, Santorum is trying to nail down every last social and religious conservative in Michigan. To accomplish that task, he apparently finds it necessary to make stuff up over and over again, to lie and distort in the service of his out-of-the-mainstream biases.

Is this a Machiavellian move on his part? Is he lying out of sheer cynicism, calculating that the far-right voters will lap it up? Or does he actually believe his own untruths at the moment they leave his mouth? I vote for the latter.

Yesterday, on ABC News, Santorum (who holds three college degrees) launched an attack on academia. Aiming his pitch at blue-collar voters who (presumably) believe that colleges are fatally infested with smarty-pants heathens, Santorum said that colleges are "indoctrination mills," hotbeds of secular tyranny where God-fearing kids lose their religious faith.

The money quote: "You know the statistic that at least I was familiar with from a few years ago - I don't know if it still holds true, but I suspect it may even be worse - that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it."

Prepare to be shocked. There is no such statistic.

The empirical figures tell a very different story. A 2007 study, in the journal Social Forces, did find that "64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their (religious) attendance habits," but that stat was highly misleading - because the study found a 76 percent dropoff among non-college Americans.

In other words, academia is more God-friendly than the outside world - a finding confirmed last year in a study by The Review of Religious Research: "Education positively affects religious participation, devotional activities, and emphasizing the importance of religion in daily life."

It's possible that Santorum got his "62 percent of kids" figure from a 2006 Harvard study on religion in academia. If so, he flagrantly misused it. In the study, 62 percent of college Republicans said that "religion is losing its influence on American life" - a different point entirely. But the Harvard poll did address the issue Santorum invoked on the air, his claim that academia makes kids less religious. Harvard asked students whether they felt that college had made them "less spiritual." Care to guess the result?

Seven percent.

Santorum's phantom academic stat brought to mind the stat he dreamed up early last week when he attacked the Dutch. (Good grief, I know he's worked up about the Iranians these days, but the Dutch?) At a religious right forum, he denounced euthanasia, singling out the Dutch as reckless killers. He stated that, thanks to a 2002 Dutch law legalizing euthanasia, the practice accounts for "10 percent of all deaths for the Netherlands." He also stated that Dutch old people walk around with bracelets that say, "Do Not Euthanize Me."

Naturally, his credulous listeners gasped. If their savior Santorum said it, it must be true, right?

Wrong. The factual statistic, later supplied by the angry Dutch government, is 2.3 percent.

Secondly, the "Do Not Euthanize Me" bracelets do not exist; some elderly folks wear "Do Not Resuscitate" bracelets, a sentiment commonly recorded in American medical paperwork. Thirdly, Santorum's claim that the Dutch go around wantonly offing people is in factual conflict with longstanding Dutch medical rules. I know this first-hand, because I twice covered the Dutch euthanasia issue when I was a foreign correspondent in the early '90s. Back then, the practice was officially tolerated by the government - but, as I wrote in 1993, the doctors had to prove "that they have followed 28 official guidelines: in essence, that the patient asked for death without any prompting, that the patient was suffering unbearably with no hope for reprieve, and that the doctor had sought a second opinion from a colleague."

But hey. Even though Santorum was concocting another fake statistic, who cares about the Dutch, right? It's not as if he was manhandling the facts in order to malign a prominent American - someone like, say, JFK.

But JFK got the Santorum treatment yesterday. On ABC News, Santorum said that he had watched Kennedy's historic 1960 speech on religion and politics, and it made him want to puke:

"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up....The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, 'faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.'"

Yet again, Santorum was making stuff up.

Kennedy never once said that "only people of non-faith could come into the public square." Those are Santorum's words; JFK voiced no such sentiment. Kennedy had no problems with people of faith coming to the public square. He had no problems with people of faith running for president. Indeed, he explicitly stated in his speech that it would be wrong to expel Catholics from running for president simply because they were Catholics: "If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser."

Kennedy did contend, however, that no candidate should take direction from the leaders of his religious faith. That was his main theme. Clearly, Santorum doesn't like that theme. I would look forward to hearing Santorum this autumn, selling church-and-state fusion to the swing voters of America. That would be a fascinating exercise.

In fact, Santorum would also be compelled to attack this presidential declaration:

"Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate." (Emphasis mine.)

Care to guess who? Ronald Reagan, 1984.


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