When Rick Santorum took out after President Obama's "phony theology," he tried to marginalize Obama as one of those "radical environmentalists," as he called them. These would be people who, by implication, would rather shiver in the dark - and force everybody else to shiver in the dark - than see a leaf of grass bent in the recovery of oil or coal.
As a stereotype it's extreme and unfair, but among the conservatives Santorum hopes will propel him into a showdown with Obama, it's guaranteed to make heads nod in recognition.
He also stoked the prejudices of people who don't grant that Obama is entitled to be regarded as a Christian if that's the way he describes his own beliefs. And what else could he possibly be? Well, check with the Rev. Franklin Graham.
On that score, Santorum backpedaled when challenged by Bob Schieffer on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I accept the fact that the president is a Christian," he said. Still, in a country where a certain strand of Christianity is seen by many as a prerequisite for patriotism - an insulting notion in a country where the right to follow any religion or no religion is a bedrock value - a candidate running in a Republican primary can use Santorum's line of innuendo to his advantage.
Schieffer asked Santorum to explain what he was getting at when he earlier accused Obama of following "some phony ideal, some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible."
That's when the Pennsylvania ex-senator conjured up the radical environmentalists who, especially in the context of energy, think that "man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth."
"But we're not here to serve the earth," he went on. "The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective."
That has all the earmarks (oops, we know he's sensitive about that word) of a false dichotomy. Perhaps there are some environmentalists so extreme that they would ignore mankind's needs for food, clothing and shelter gleaned from Earth's bounty. But Obama the progressive pragmatist is so far removed from that kind of wacky-green fringe that for Santorum to suggest a shared world view is ludicrous.
Then there's the touchy matter of how the environmental ethic jibes with the religious. An environmental consciousness, a sense of the importance of that stewardship Santorum mentioned, is a familiar theme in many religions, from Native American, to the Buddhist, to the Judeo-Christian tradition and probably Islam as well.
But for Christians and Jews, how literally are they to take the "dominion" over the earth assigned to mankind in the Book of Genesis, and to which Santorum also referred?
If you ask me, that responsibility ought to be considered in tandem with another precept drawn from Genesis - that pride goes before the fall. Sure, we have more capacity than any other species to manipulate our earthly "garden." But if we become too cocky about it, we're headed for the ditch.
Santorum rejected what he described as the view that "we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the earth." Although he'd be oversimplifying their objections, he could have been referring to the Pennsylvanians who have turned against natural gas fracking because of a catalog of ill effects wrought by the gas companies in their rush to tap the energy embedded in deep-buried shale.
Wells and surface waters have been befouled. Where's the stewardship there?
Perhaps shale gas drilling can indeed be carried out in a way that keeps environmental damage to a minimum. But it will require careful science and rigorous rules - not something to hold one's breath for in a Santorum administration. Not only does the candidate see what is actually Obama's moderate environmentalism - after all, the president hasn't opposed fracking, but simply said it needs to be done safely - as anti-biblical, he also cites it as just another "attempt, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government."
Great - here we go with the tiresome conservative complaint about power-hungry bureaucrats. But if government, acting on the people's behalf, isn't protecting their interests, who will? The profit-hungry gas companies?
Notice, too, how Santorum's kind of thinking permeates even to the level of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, where majority Republicans gag over the logical and necessary concept that a community shouldn't devour the resources that are its seed corn as it grows.
Rather than swagger with pride over our ability to take advantage of the planet with which we've been entrusted, and swell with confidence that we'll make the right choices, a dose of humility is called for.
"The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," says the 24th Psalm. Sounds like some friendly advice: We're just part of that creation, so whether we have dominion or not, we'd better not mess it up.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at email@example.com.