The Pretzel Logic of Religion and Politics

The New York Times’ special forum today on religion in American politics featured—with one notable exception—a parade of the predictable. While scholars cautiously declared the issue of religion in American politics to broad to be coherently addressed, faith leaders weighed in by proposing parameters for what should matter to religious (here, presumably, Christian) voters in 2012. According to Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the issue should be poverty. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention says national security and Israel. Others say abortion.

But only contributor M. A. Muqtedar Khan gets to the heart of it: religion is always an issue in American politics, and every issue potentially has religious dimensions. The real story is in examining who leverages religion, and how, and when, and in whose interest. Religion is wielded as a coded form of identity politics, Khan observes. And it ends up, especially with Mitt Romney, as a game of reveal and conceal.

Case in point: the issue of Mormonism in politics. In his contribution to the forum, Adam Brown, a Brigham Young University political scientist, begins with the words “The Savior Jesus Christ.” His short essay telegraphs first and foremost both anxiety and eagerness among LDS people to utilize a moment of heightened visibility to affirm the Christianity of the Mormon tradition. (And I have no question about Brown’s sincerity in highlighting the Christianity of Mormonism.) Calling for a separation of “political” from “personal,” Brown then directs attention to the Christian proverb “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s” as a way of proposing a moderate sounding non-interference of the religious in public life. However, that moderation belies a religion with a distinctive record of theocratic ambition and action. Openly theocratic until the time of Utah’s admission to statehood in the late nineteenth century, Mormonism has maintained a shadow theocracy on the issues it deems “moral,” which with rare exception (in the case of the MX missile in the 1980s) it has defined as matters pertaining to gender and sexuality. The philosophy of “rendering to Caeser” did not pertain, it appears, to allowing civil society the prerogative to establish equality under the law for women during the Equal Rights Amendment struggle of the 1970s and 1980s or for gay couples during recent state-by-state battles over marriage equality; political battles in which LDS people, directed by the Church, have invested heavily.

Brown’s argument makes tactical sense in a year when Mormons are anxious to showcase their commonalities with the American majority. But trying to avoid the stickier issues of our own theocratic ambitions makes us look eager to hide our own decisive political history. Everyone remembers that Mormons have utilized religion in politics, and no one is fooled.

Eager to please, anxious to manage—it’s a rhetorical approach that reminds me of Mitt Romney, whom George Will called a “pretzel candidate” this weekend for “straddling” issues from ethanol to TARP. Perhaps Romney’s own rhetorical management efforts are a remnant of Mormonism’s longer bi-directional struggle to win acceptance in the American mainstream while maintaining a tactical form of theocracy.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.