WASHINGTON - In response to his comment on a radio show that "we always need a Jesus candidate," the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on Friday called on Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to refrain from overt expressions of religious preferences and beliefs on the campaign trail, stating that "religious appeals to voters are simply unacceptable and un-American."
"Senator Santorum's remark comparing himself to a 'Jesus candidate' was inappropriate and exclusionary. It essentially says that those of other faiths or of no faith – whether Jews,
Buddhists, non-believers or others – do not belong," said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman.
"Religious appeals to voters are simply unacceptable and un-American. Voters should be encouraged to make their decisions based upon their assessment of the qualifications, integrity and political positions of candidates, not the intensity of their religious beliefs," he said.
The ADL said it has "long maintained that candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters, but that there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling."
In response to a question from a caller on a radio show, Santorum said Thursday he disagreed the economy was the main issue of the campaign. The caller commented, "We don't need a Jesus candidate; we need an economic candidate," to which Sen. Santorum replied: "My answer to that was, we always need a Jesus candidate. We need someone who believes in something more than themselves and not just the economy. … When we say, "God bless America," do we mean it or do we just say it?"
Santorum has come under closer scrutiny after finishing a very close second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses.
During a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Friday the senator was forced to defend his opposition to gay rights.
Taking questions from a mostly youthful audience at a school in Dublin, Santorum was quickly on the defensive. The first questioner wanted to know why he opposed gays being able to serve openly in the US military and being able to adopt children.
There are certain qualifications for being allowed to serve in the military, he said.
"I believe that does not include people who are openly gay in the military. That's my belief. I believe the military will be much better served by having a 'don't ask, don't tell policy," Santorum said.
Santorum presents himself as the representative of the working class, but a recent Washington Post article claimed that from January 2010 to August 2011 he earned at least $1.3 million "as he cashed in on his 16 years in Congress by working as a corporate consultant, political pundit and board member."
Santorum earned a $165,200 Senate salary and $32,245 in book royalties, according to his 2006 disclosure report.
On gay marriage and adoption, he added: "Marriage is not a right. Not everybody can marry everybody else."
According to an NBC News-Marist poll, Romney gets the backing of 42% of likely Republican voters in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, including those leaning toward a particular candidate.
He’s followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul
at 22%, Santorum at 13%; Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are both tied at 9% and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to get only 1% of the votes.
Reuters contributed to the report