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Devil in the details: Santorum hardly alone in belief in Satan

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Tuesday defended his 2008 comments on Satan.

Rick Santorum is far from alone in professing a belief in Satan. In fact, most Americans believe in the devil too.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 Republican presidential contender, is making headlines this week for comments he made at a Catholic university in 2008 about Satan having his “sights on” America.

In the speech, which resurfaced recently, Santorum told an audience at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida: “Satan [has been] attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that [have] so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”

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He said Satan has been “most successful” in attacking academia, but that Satan also has gone after the church and popular culture. Santorum said politics and government would be the next to fall to Satan’s attack. “The body politic held up fairly well up until the last couple of decades but it is falling too.”

While such frank talk about spiritual warfare is uncommon among presidential candidates, surveys over the past few decades have shown that the majority of Americans do believe in Satan.

According to a 2007 Gallup poll, seven in 10 Americans said they believe in “the Devil,” while 8 percent were not sure. Twenty-one percent said they don’t believe in the devil.

Eighty-six percent said they believe in God, while 8 percent were not sure and 6 percent said they don’t believe in God.

A 2009 Harris Interactive survey found 60 percent of American adults believe in the devil, while 82 percent said they believe in God.

"Santorum's comments regarding his theory of the fall of American institutions is, I think, quite relevant in the current presidential debate," said C. Melissa Snarr, associate preofessor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

"In a public speech, Santorum offered a grand interpretation of the current challenges facing the United States. I think it is imperative to analyze and debate his version of a political theodicy (or why bad things happen to good countries) and ask whether his interpretation is one that voters should feel comfortable backing," Snarr said in an email to msnbc.com."

"What he's saying, it's certainly not any heresy," the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, told CNN. "It's the language some preachers would use that conservative Catholics would be very comfortable with. Is it the kind of language theology professors at Catholic universities would use? Probably not. They would likely see it more metaphorically," he said, according to CNN.

Santorum on Tuesday defended his 2008 speech.

“You know, I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil,” he told reporters following a rally in Phoenix. “I think if somehow or another, because you’re a person of faith you believe in good and evil [is] a disqualifier for president, we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.”

Snarr said the media is right to dissect the speech.

"Is the media making too much of it? No. He has chosen to make a very public interpretation of the trajectory of the United States (specifically citing an opposition candidate) and his public political theology should be discussed thoroughly," Snarr said in an email response.

She added: "This is not to say, however, that a belief in Satan or even spiritual warfare puts him at the 'extreme' end of Christianity. Belief in Satan and Satan's activity is present in multiple Christian traditions and particularly important for more theologically conservative evangelical believers— of whom there are many in the U.S."

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