As he tries to cement his newfound position as a leader in the Republican presidential primary campaign, Rick Santorum has embraced a favorite tactic among GOP pols: attacking the media. Complaints from Santorum and his aides that journalists unduly focused on the candidate’s views on social policy have, at least, succeeded in making “Is the media ganging up on Santorum?” one of the storylines of the campaign.

The complaints are, for the most part, unfounded. Nate Silver of The New York Times has found that coverage of Santorum does, in fact, focus more on controversial social policy issues than does coverage of rival candidates. But there’s a good reason for that: Santorum’s positions on those issues are farther from current policy, and over the course of his career he’s articulated those positions with an enthusiasm that suggests they would inform his approach to governance. Most contemporary presidential candidates don’t make a point of talking about how they would prosecute hotel-room pornography from the White House, and most haven’t given speeches about how Satan is destroying important American institutions, including religious institutions, in a “spiritual war.” So some extra media attention to both Santorum’s rhetoric and his substantive agenda on social issues is appropriate.

But that extra scrutiny needs to reflect careful attention to what Santorum is actually saying. In one recent episode, unfortunately, it hasn’t. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy has already noted, this week’s storyline—the continuing fallout from Santorum’s “phony theology” remarks in Ohio over the weekend—has at times come untethered.

Via the conservative media watchdog site Newsbusters.org, here’s what Santorum told a group of Tea Party activists in Columbus:

The price of fuel right now, they’re talking maybe by the summer we’re looking at $5 a gallon. Why? Why? Because this president systematically is doing everything he can to raise the price of energy in this country. He’s shutting down all sorts of opportunities for us to drill for oil. He’s now trying to infuse not science when it comes to the environment, not environmental science when it comes to drilling wells for oil and gas in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and other places that use hydraulic fracking.

He’s trying to do again what he tried to do with global warming. Instead of using climate science or global science he uses political science. And political science in this case is suggesting that a technology that has been successfully used to drill hundreds of thousands of wells in this country, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells, all of a sudden now that’s a dangerous technology. Why? Because it could lead to lower energy prices. That’s the dangerousness of this technology. It doesn’t fit his pattern of trying to drive down consumption, driving to drive up your cost of transportation to accomplish his political science goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

This is what the president’s agenda is. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

This is admittedly a little hard to parse, because Santorum uses a handful of words differently than many people would use them. One of them is “political science,” by which he seems to mean something like politicized science. The other is “theology,” which he uses where many people might use “ideology.” (In fact, the initial Washington Post blog post about Santorum’s remarks misquoted him, putting the words “phony ideology” in his mouth instead.)

That choice—“theology” over “ideology”—and the following line about “not a theology based on the Bible,” is consequential. Santorum is charging that Obama’s policy agenda stems from a fully-fledged, coherent worldview that is not, as Santorum believes it should be, rooted in a correct understanding of Christian scripture. (This was the explanation he offered Sunday on Face the Nation, and it’s consistent with his original remarks.) That’s a substantive, politically important critique that reporters should interrogate.

It isn’t, though, part of the shameful campaign waged by Obama opponents since 2007 to delegitimize Obama personally as somehow “other”—not truly American, not truly Christian, just plain not white, etc. Santorum was going after the environmental movement and its supporters (i.e., most of the Democratic coalition), not offering a coded attack on Obama.

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.