Even as he continues to eye another presidential bid, Rick Santorum is stepping into a new role: movie mogul.
In June, Santorum became CEO of EchoLight Studios, which produces Christian films. Santorum, who changed his own views on abortion as an adult, believes that if conservatives wish to gain converts, they must look not only to politics but also to the culture.
“We’re losing this debate not because of politics,” Santorum told attendees last Saturday at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, the second annual gathering of the group by the same name. “Politicians didn’t change the culture — the popular culture changed America.”
“Who’s creating the moral imagination for the future of our country?” he asked.
In an interview with National Review Online, Santorum stressed that he hopes to make high-quality Christian films at EchoLight instead of the sentimental dreck that Christian artists often make with the best of intentions. “If you look at any of the other ‘Christian’ films, most of them are not particularly well done,” Santorum says. EchoLight, he hopes, will shift the trend by focusing on both good stories and excellent execution of those stories. He wants movies that openly look at faith and the role it plays in people’s lives
Santorum offers The Passion of the Christ as an example of a well-made movie that was also Christian. Other movies he cites as models of what he hopes to produce at EchoLight are Ben-Hur and The Song of Bernadette. “You used to have all sorts of movies that were very authentic in their Christian message, and it was mainstream Hollywood that made them,” Santorum remarks. “That has disappeared in the last 40 or 50 years.”
“All we’re trying to do,” he adds, “is reclaim that space for truth.”
As for what stories he’ll tell, Santorum said the studio would be open to adapting books, and he mentioned that EchoLight has talked with prolific, best-selling Evangelical author Karen Kingsbury. To get a sense of Kingsbury, consider that there are more than 20 million copies of her novels in print, she’s trademarked the phrase “life-changing fiction,” and her biography begins by noting that she is “America’s favorite inspirational novelist.”
Santorum is clearly passionate about the need for conservatives to make cultural inroads, but there’s zero indication that he sees himself remaining in the movie business forever. In Iowa, he was in full-on campaign mode, talking to activists in Ames and attending a county GOP dinner in Round Rock. His message was much the same as it was in 2012: socially conservative and critical of the GOP for its inability to connect with blue-collar workers. He urged Republicans to reach out to “job holders,” not just “job creators,” and dismissed the party’s rhetoric about a rising tide lifting all boats. “Most people I know have holes in their boats, and when that tide rises, sometimes they don’t rise,” he said. “Sometimes they sink.” In an interview after the speech, Santorum reiterated one of his top points from 2012: Conservatives should heed the manufacturing industry and look at changing regulations and the tax code in order to make manufacturing cheaper in the United States.
His tactics, he acknowledges, would change if he were to run again in 2016. He would raise “a couple of million dollars more” and be more careful to avoid unnecessarily controversial comments, although he is quick to stress that he wants to remain “authentic.” Treading the line between caution and authenticity might prove as challenging as raising money. Santorum is open about his struggles to connect with top-dollar donors in the Republican party — some see him as too invested in the social issues. “They come from a different world, and the things that they care about and are focused on are different from what I care about,” he says. They are not persuaded by his argument that you cannot have small government and a thriving, free-market economy without stable families.
Organization is one area where Santorum thinks he could make significant strides the next time around. As a result of the 2012 race, his staff is far more experienced. If he runs again, Santorum says, he won’t rely on his college-age daughter, Elizabeth Santorum, and one of her friends, to make sure he gets on the ballot in primary states.
But expectations, he admits, would be higher in 2016 — and that would make the race different. He won’t be able to replicate the late triumph of his 2012 primary run, when he was largely ignored for most of the race. If he runs again, he’ll be under scrutiny — and under pressure to prove himself by winning several states in the early days.
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader and a top social conservative in Iowa, says that rivals write off Santorum at their own risk.
“If you take a look at the history of the Republican party — the person who places second,” Vander Plaats muses, “almost always gets to be the nominee” four years later. “So I definitely wouldn’t write Santorum off.”