Some of the coverage, though—egged on by some of Obama’s advisers—has suggested that’s exactly what he was doing. The frame was set by the initial Associated Press report, written by Steve Peoples, which gave prominent play to the “phony theology” line but omitted any of the context about energy and the environment. A subhed that appeared on the story—“Rick Santorum questions Obama’s Christian values”—is accurate. But it’s also misleading, because Santorum questions many people’s “Christian values”—an important point that gets obscured in the story. (From that 2008 “Satan” speech that’s now making headlines: “[W]e look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”)

In The New York Times, meanwhile, Richard Oppel Jr.’s account opened with a solid presentation of Santorum’s critique of public education. But pivoting to the “phony theology” comments, the story omitted the environmental context, even as it explicitly tied Santorum’s remarks to the history of anti-Obama smears:

At another stop in Ohio on Saturday, Mr. Santorum waded into what he called the “phony theology” of Mr. Obama’s agenda.

“It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology,” he said. “But no less a theology.”

In later comments to reporters, Mr. Santorum said while there are “a lot of different stripes” of Christianity, he believes that “if the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.”

“I’m just saying he’s imposing his values on the church, and I think that’s wrong,” he said, adding that he did not believe Mr. Obama was less of a Christian for doing so.

But the Obama campaign called the comments “the latest low in a Republican primary campaign that has been fueled by distortions, ugliness and searing pessimism and negativity.”

Assertions that Mr. Obama is not a Christian, or that he is not an American, were rampant in the 2008 campaign. It got so bad at one point—in the opinion of the Republican nominee, John McCain—that Mr. McCain took back the microphone from a woman at one of his rallies who asserted that Mr. Obama was “an Arab.” Mr. McCain then corrected the woman.

This year, Mr. Santorum has passed up similar opportunities to correct misstatements about the president’s background.

Last month, a woman at one of Mr. Santorum’s campaign stops in Florida declared during a question-and-answer session that Mr. Obama was Muslim. According to an account by CNN, Mr. Santorum did not correct the woman’s statement, and he later said it was not his job to correct such statements.

It’s noteworthy that Santorum has not tried to correct anti-Obama smears, as McCain did. And it’s true that Santorum’s acknowledgements of Obama’s Christianity have often sounded grudging, and that he—like the other Republican candidates—has accused Obama of waging war on religion. But that doesn’t mean that Santorum, in his remarks in Columbus, was participating in a smear campaign against Obama.

That seems to be the storyline taking hold, though—in part because, after a couple days of national back and forth about what Santorum meant, the evangelist Franklin Graham went on MSNBC Tuesday morning and indulged in some loathsome “Obama-just-might-be-a-secret-Muslim” provocation. Two makes a trend, and much coverage of Graham’s comments has linked them to Santorum’s.

That’s a mistake. The smear campaign against Obama is a cynical, demagogic effort to delegitimize the president as somehow “other” in the eyes of voters. Santorum’s “phony theology” comments, on the other hand, stem from a sincere conviction that the direction of public policy is insufficiently Christianist. That’s a conviction that merits scrutiny, but journalists owe it to Santorum—and, as importantly, to their audience—to take note of the difference.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.