As he tests the waters by visiting the early battleground states, Rick Santorum appears eager to take a plunge into the 2012 presidential race. The former Pennsylvania senator, whose Fox News contract was suspended pending his decision on a presidential run, announced last week that he would participate in the first presidential debate on May 5 in Greenville, South Carolina. The chairman of the political action committee America's Foundation was on his way to Le Mars, Iowa, the self-described ice cream capital of the world, when he spoke with CT about Muslims in America, being targeted by gay activists, and why he gives President Obama credit on one issue.

If you ran for President, how would you distinguish yourself from other candidates?

I had the courage and the conviction to stand up, particularly to a lot of the multicultural issues that folks tend to shy away from. You pay a price when you stand up and fight the abortion culture and the gay community, and the media tries to paint you as a fringe character when you fight on these issues. The family needs a voice, the unborn need a voice, those who are going to be victims of healthcare need a voice, and those who are disabled need a voice. I was always the one to take a bullet to get something done that I thought was important for the moral future of our country.

How much do you think Christians should consider a candidate's faith when deciding whether to vote for them or not?

Voters should consider the candidate's moral framework and what they believe about right and wrong. Obviously your faith has a role in that, in constructing your moral view and your worldview, your ethical code. As far as theological tenets goes, those don't necessarily affect the public discourse. It's important to understand and know the tenets and teaching of the faith with respect to how people live their lives. That's why, for example, if someone were a Muslim [who] believes that women should live by Shari'ah law, that's helpful in knowing how they would approach their job and what they would like to see the laws of this land look like.

Rep. King recently held hearings to investigate Shari'ah law and radical Islam. Do you have similar concerns?

Look. We have ignored the reality that we're in an ideological battle. This is a battle of the world of ideas, a war of ideas, not just a war against people who use terrorism. These are jihadists. They are religiously motivated. If we don't explore that world and understand what they think and why they think, we're not going to be able to confront it and defeat it. We're not going to be able to persuade those who have a sympathetic ear toward it that this is a dangerous thing that is not compatible with our country and our culture.

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Do you have any concern that the hearings could unfairly lump Muslims together?

I assume Muslims come to this country because they want to live in America. I suspect that they would be as much opposed to folks who want to come here and impose Shari'ah law as anybody else. They would be as interested in folks who want to distort the faith that they adhere to as much as—if not more than—other Americans. I wouldn't think that they would be concerned about it.

What do you think is the most pressing issue for the nation at this point?

If we don't appeal Obamacare, then I believe America as we know it is gone. The government will have the grand pipeline into your wallet, will have influence and control over your lives, will be able to take away your economic freedom, and you will be dependent upon government for your very survival. There are moral issues with respect to how we'll treat people on the margins of life when we talk about abortion, about euthanasia, [about] money and rationing care. So there are all sorts of reasons—economic, political, and moral—that Obamacare must absolutely be repealed.

Aside from health care, how then would you help fix the country's economic problems?

We should have a program that reduces taxes and increases the desire to hire people. We need lower tax rates, lessen regulatory burdens like Obamacare. One of the real keys is to become energy independent. We have an administration that is anti-energy. This administration has a dedicated program to shut down oil and gas drilling and mining, nuclear power plants, and on down the list.

On the social issues front, former governor of Utah John Huntsman has said that he supports civil unions. Do you think a Republican candidate for President can support civil unions?

Well, I don't support civil unions, and if John Huntsman wants to support them, that's his business. When you ask the government to create a special status for you then you need to make the argument that that brings something special and unique to society. I don't see how a gay union is any different from a couple living together and who want tax benefits because they live together. What intrinsic value and worth do people of the same sex living together bring to society compared to what a man and woman in marriage bring to the future of civilization? Having children, nurturing and raising those children, is what marriage and the benefits of government are all about, and that's not what folks who aren't doing that bring to the equation.

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You've talked in the past about an issue related to Google, where if you search for your name it comes up with a graphic definition.

Well, clearly folks who stand up for marriage are the target of the gay and lesbian community, and there's an element of that community that has been wounded and feels like they need to lash out. We need to pray for them. I look at it as one of those things; you just have to have tough skin in this business, and you have [to have] the courage to stand for what you believe in. So it comes with the territory, but it's never a pleasant thing. They are folks who have been obviously very hurt at some point in time in their lives and are very angry and upset and lash out against people who differ from them.

Do you regret what you said that made you a target?

The dissent [in the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision] said virtually the same thing I said, which is if you create a constitutional right to consensual sexual activity you can't draw the line then and say, "Well, we're only going to allow some consensual activity and not allow other consensual activity." If you allow for consensual activity with respect to homosexual activity then what's to say that polygamous activity or incestuous activity or other types of activity like that are not going to also be constitutionally protected because they're consensual. So that's the problem. People took that and said, oh well, you're comparing homosexual acts to other acts, if consenting adults is the standard then other acts cannot be proscribed as a result. No. I don't back away from my comment at all. It was a legally correct comment to make.

How can Christians engage social issues in a way that doesn't come across or isn't seen as hateful or discriminatory?

If you look at who's out there selling hate, it's not Christian conservatives. Saying we need to respect all human life is not a hate-filled position. Planned Parenthood is there to make money on abortion and to encourage you to have an abortion. We want children to have what's best, mothers and fathers to be in strong and committed relationships. That's what's best for society, for most men and women, and we know it's what's best for children.

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Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, and Rudy Giuliani have each been married three times. Should Christians consider a candidate's marital life when deciding whether to vote for them or not?

Voters will examine the facts and circumstances around those circumstances, the life that the person has lived and make an evaluation as to whether this is an issue that's going to impact their vote. I suspect on some level it will.

Does it present an issue for you?

I've been married almost 21 years, and I very much am in love with my wife and try to do my best to be a good father to my children. When it comes to public policy I try to live what I preach. I fall short of the mark sometimes, but it's important to have a life that's consistent with what you believe. I look to my wife and my children and to my friends to help me be accountable with what I say and what I do.

After you left the Senate, you seemed to devote much of your attention to foreign policy.

I was very concerned in 2006 that Republicans and Democrats alike were going to get the wrong message from that election—that we needed to abandon our battle against the jihadists in the world, abandon ship in Iraq and Afghanistan and retreat, as the radical Left was suggesting we do.

Have your views on U.S. engagement in the Middle East changed since leaving office?

No, the source of the threat of the radical jihadists is in the Middle East. That's where the cancer is and has grown and will continue to grow. There's great concern that past governments are not anywhere near what the resulting governments are going to look like, and they may be—it's certainly the case in Egypt—much more involved with jihadist ideology than the government that was overthrown. It's not a positive thing for our ally Israel, nor for us.

How might you handle what's going on in Afghanistan differently than President Obama?

I give credit to President Obama. He basically followed President Bush's roadmap in Iraq to what appears to be a relatively successful conclusion. His timeline is in error. We need to do in Afghanistan what we did in Iraq, which is make sure we have a stable regime in place that can be an effective government of that society going forward.

Would you increase efforts to promote religious freedom?

Look at what's going on with the Copts in Egypt. The Copts are under attack almost on a regular basis, and the United States has said nothing. You have an ancient Chaldean community that's being wiped out in Iraq. It's unconscionable for us to usher in a new government, whether it's Egypt or whether it's Iraq, and allow this to occur to this minority in that country.

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As you try to figure out whether you'll run for President, what would be the driving reason behind running for President? And when might you announce a decision?

The President is taking this country down a very dangerous course that may fundamentally change who America is going forward and also put our country at grave risk from external forces. People ask me if I'm running, I say I'm walking. I'm just taking it one step at a time.

What kinds of barriers do you think you'll need to overcome if you do decide to run?

I have seven children and six that live at home right now. This is a big responsibility; I've got to provide for them, [they've] got to eat and have a place to sleep. We have two boys that we're homeschooling right now, and Karen seems to have that issue pretty well in control. I'm the P.E. teacher more than anything else.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin also has a large family. Do you feel like you're in a similar situation?

Yeah. In fact, that's one of the reasons I made the comment I did a while back about her not attending CPAC, because I share with them and I feel the pain, in some respects. She's got responsibilities to help provide for her family; I have the same. I'm sure there's a lot of competing interests. It may not be the right time. Who knows?

Do you feel like it's different at all for female politicians in balancing that home life?

Well, I don't know. She's been a professional for a long time. She was governor of the state, and she's been someone who's been if not the principal breadwinner in the family certainly someone who's done that. Her husband has taken the role of being around the house a little bit more, and that's a wonderful example of how couples can work out their own way to be both provider as well as caregiver. To each his own as to who can do it better and who is best suited to do each.

How might you make a strong case for being able to defeat President Obama since you lost your Senate seat in 2006?

2006 was a year when everybody on the ticket in Pennsylvania who was in any race lost. We lost the governor's race by 22 points in 2006 and we won it by 10 points in 2010. 2012 will be very different from 2006. People realize that what we have in Washington, D.C., is a threat to the future security and freedom in our country. There's a mixed bag of folks who think that I'm someone who has some good ideas that could stand up to Obama and do battle.

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Related Elsewhere:

Previous interviews with Rick Santorum include:

On the Record: Rick Santorum | On Islamofascism, Iraq, pro-life Democrats, and other issues. (October 30, 2006)
Sen. Rick Santorum: I Draw No Line Between My Faith and My Decisions | The Pennsylvania Republican speaks on legislating morality, why he was right about anti-sodomy laws, and his 2006 opponent-apparent, Bob Casey Jr. (March 28, 2005)

Christianity Today also previously interviewed other potential presidential candidates, including Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney.

CT also follows political developments on the politics blog.