A Scholar Responds: Candidates, Think Twice When Invoking Religion

In the first week of Religion Dispatches, Randall Balmer offered a wonderful analysis of the difficulty Mitt Romney faced as he tried to position himself as the best “religion and values” presidential candidate. In short, both items, his religion and his values, were suspect. Balmer noted that in his version of Kennedy’s pre-nomination speech about religion, Romney was unable to offer the assurance that Kennedy was able to provide: namely, that he was committed to the separation of church and state, and that he was determined to keep his religion private. That argument was unavailable to a Republican candidate running as “the true conservative” in 2008, precisely because both of these commitments—to some form of secular politics, and to some kind of religious privacy—have been under assault since the beginning of the Reagan revolution. What Romney offered instead, as Balmer laid out very nicely, was a largely incoherent insistence on religion’s centrality and the simultaneous political irrelevance of his personal beliefs to anyone who might find them suspect. Naturally, you can’t have it both ways.

With Romney now absent from the race, I would like to add Mike Huckabee to this strange picture, since I believe we see the flipside of this same problem in his campaign. The debate over the relevance of Romney’s Mormonism, and Huckabee’s attempts to distance himself from the determined view of his own denomination, demonstrated nothing so much as how the relentless insertion of religion into our public political life hurts religion most of all. It speaks to the sheer vacuousness of most (though certainly not all) political appeals to religion, which have been permitted to go almost unchallenged, ever since Reagan’s explicit coddling of a self-professed moral majority, and the post-Clinton swerve to the center, with its clear implication that nervous Democratic candidates had better be biblically literate. The end result has been the emergence of political appeals to religion and to God which increasingly lack substance, and of an electorate that believes sense rather than nonsense is being made of their religions in the process.

Here were some of the obvious facts which emerged from Romney’s speech, and Huckabee’s remarkably kid-gloved response to it.

Point One: Mormons, more accurately called members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or simply Latter Day Saints), believe that they are Christians, whereas most members of most mainline Protestant denominations, and most Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well, question that claim—to say the least.

This should not be difficult for Christians to understand. Followers of Jesus in the first century of the Common Era antagonized their Jewish fellow-travelers by insisting that new devotional writings, dedicated to their own views about Jesus’ messiahship, should count with equal authority to the canonical writings in the Hebrew Bible. In short, they eventually added a New Testament to the Old one. When Muslims made similar claims about the Qur’an, seeing it as a supplemental revelation intended to correct problematic interpretations of the Torah and the gospels, Christians were antagonized in ways that sound very similar to Jewish objections about the canonical status of the New Testament. Mormons continue in this proud tradition, adding scriptures of their own to the surprisingly elastic canon of the three scriptural monotheisms. But they are the only ones who recognize them as canonical.

Point Two: Fundamentalist Baptists are in the vanguard of Christian groups who clearly believe that Mormonism is heterodoxy, or more to the point, heresy. They decidedly do not recognize the authority of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon, and vigorously object to any attempt to tie the New Testament to either. What is striking, given this clear division, is how Romney and Huckabee both fell back on roughly the same position in order to avoid dealing with the inconvenient truth that their two religious points-of-view actually are incompatible; the rather obvious truth being that religion draws lines and deals in exclusions at least as often as it deals in inclusions. The two men sincerely wanted to present a united Republican front, one that is “religion-friendly,” but they both tried to do so by making their religions friendlier than they actually are.

The irony is this: the fallback position for both men was precisely the “liberal” position Republicans have been mocking in public speeches and skewering in the courts for the past 25 years. That fallback position involves a fairly simple principle: the Liberal commitment to the freedom (and privacy) of religion (and conscience).

Religion, they both agree, is a private matter. When pressed on some of the stranger-seeming points of Mormon doctrine, Romney grouchily insisted that “I’m not a theologian.” When pressed to say whether he believes that Romney is a Christian, Huckabee claimed that he “could not know what’s in his heart.”

Romney had reassured voters that his religious faith would neither determine nor define his presidency. He echoed John F. Kennedy who, faced with similar questions, insisted that Washington DC would not answer to Vatican City; we may confidently add Salt Lake City to the list. But then, quite amazingly, Romney suggested that religiosity is actually necessary to the continued health of our body politic and ethical life. But whose religion, and which ethics? Romney’s “religion” is completely nonspecific, because no one who invokes religion in politics seems to know enough, or care enough, to say specifically what kind of religion they have in mind. It became increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Mitt Romney was a political opportunist who believed that religion is best imagined as a private matter, an affair of the heart—except when making it a public matter helped him to score points against Rudy Giuliani, and to shore up his own alleged base—the very base that deems his religion a heresy.

Huckabee was at least as incoherent, and in his case this is more baffling because he presents himself as a minister of the gospel. As such, he ought to know better. Yet he too fell back on religion’s essentially private quality. He reassured voters that he could not know what was in Mitt Romney’s heart, and that as a preacher of the gospel, he was in no position to judge the Christian credentials of anyone. Strange preaching, this. Christianity’s entire history has been a history of exclusion by figures of authority, policing the borders of orthodoxy and punishing those who transgress them. When a Baptist preacher tells us that Romney’s faith is between him and God, then he artfully ignores the clear pronouncements of his own denomination. How, we want to know, can a preacher play so fast and loose with orthodoxy, and yet cling so tightly to “conservative” morality? Huckabee’s convictions against gay and lesbian sexuality, for instance, are untouched by his newfound respect for privacy in religious matters. The strange reality is that Christians in the United States in the 21st century have created a novel cultural situation in which they beat each other mercilessly over a fairly narrow range of moral questions the way Christians used to beat each other over theological questions. We cannot beat each other up over theology anymore, because no one knows enough about religious history or theology to be able to make the arguments.

In such an environment, Romney and Huckabee, the most recognizably religious “values candidates,” could both get away with being unwittingly and ironically very liberal indeed. They happily accept the privatizing of religious faith, and in so doing, retreat from the past twenty-five years of the Republican theocratic thing, in my left-leaning opinion, if either of them understood the implications of what they are saying, or knew enough about religion beyond its political use-value, to help foster a serious debate about the appropriate role of religion in public life.

The two main political parties in the past twenty-five years have been very loose coalitions. In general, the coalition that fractures worst loses. In several dramatic cases, votes peeled away by a third party candidate did that work. In this unexpectedly complex campaign season, the fault lines have appeared in some unexpected places. Only some of this may be explained by the accelerated calendar of primaries and caucuses, and only some of it may be explained by the strange way in which both parties are running against the current administration. There is a very real issue brewing, it seems to me, and it represents a potential problem for both traditional coalitions: that which has passed for political wisdom in the previous generation no longer works. The issue concerns religion.

There has been a way, not of talking about religion, but simply of invoking it, that was believed to help win elections and to swing an electorate. That way of thinking and talking is no longer tenable. If anyone, even a self-styled conservative Republican, is free to self-identify religiously and in private, then the making of public policy grounded in religion simply cannot work. There are no authority structures left to adjudicate the debates we were trying and failing to have: over whether Mitt Romney was a Christian or not, and who was in a position of authority to say.

In a Liberal state with a commitment to individual rights on significant private matters of conscience, like religion, the absence of such binding authority is a very good thing. But that’s why presidential candidates should stop talking about religion publicly. Unless, as none of them appear to do, they mean us to take seriously what they say and to ask follow-up questions about it. But clearly, that is the last thing they want. Invocations of religion have been argument-stoppers, and quite effectively so, for twenty-five years. Perhaps we are finally in a position to combat the all-too-casual invocation of religion in places it does not properly belong, and to envision what the invocation of religion as the beginning of a conversation might indeed look like among democratically committed fellow citizens.