[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Another thought (shorter than last time) about the recent Newsweek cover story on Mormonism in America today, and Mitt Romney’s–or any other prominent member of my church’s–place in it all. Several writers have taken different types of exception to Walter Kirn’s presentation of Mormonism as a religion which has, despite (or perhaps because of) its arguably marginal and often controversial presence in American public life, somehow found the “secret to success” and is ” having its moment”. The debate is over whether Kirn, and all those involved in putting together the package of features, misunderstood or put the wrong spin on the undeniable fact that Mormon culture has, in many (though not all) ways, greatly aligned itself to a certain, relatively successful slice of American life: business-oriented, culturally conservative, non-offensively Christian, practical and pragmatic, accepting of (a certain amount of) pluralism, patriotic and, to a degree, quite self–affirming. While this process of adaption has been going on for quite a while–so much so that it has also given rise to a concurrent process of retrenchment/backlash, and perhaps we even are even seeing a backlash to the backlash within the church–recognizing and addressing ourselves to that adaptation is still relatively recent; I’ve suggested that you can see it explicitly in the differences between the last several presidents of our church, while Matt Bowman recently suggested that you can see it implicitly in the generation gap between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (though I had my doubts about that). These are good, curious debates to have–but I would ask something slightly tangential. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that in our public persona, our susceptibility to conventional American satire, and in the candidates we are producing for high political office, we really are experiencing a “Mormon Moment”. My question: should Romney (and Huntsman, though he’s less of a player at this point) be happy about that?
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. When Romney traveled to Texas during his previous run for the Republican nomination, and gave an important speech making a case for why a Mormon can every bit a participant in making the case for the “common creed of moral convictions” which many Christian conservatives have made central to the aims of the Republican party, he quite consciously echoed John F. Kennedy’s speech, given under similar circumstances during his campaign for the presidency in 1960. Romney’s line “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest”, and Kennedy’s line “Whatever issue may come before me as president….I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates”, essentially say the same thing: that the person speaking is a candidate who approaches religion, and whom makes use of his religion (to whatever extent he does), solely in the context of discerning what is the interest of the whole nation, not any one sectarian part of it. That is, fundamentally, a classical liberal statement, one that would serve equally well to defend against attacks upon both Catholics and Mormons within America’s liberal democracy. And yet, such a liberal statement cannot truly serve Romney as it did Kennedy…because Romney has to appeal to Republican primary voters who don’t agree with it. And the more “mainstream” Mormonism may appear to be becoming, the more Romney’s capacity to connect with voters who have moral complaints with the results which they see that classical liberal answer as having given the United States–a capacity which is already made difficult by the baggage which Mormonism carries amongst many Americans–becomes that much more complicated.
This is not to claim that Republican primary voters, particularly in Iowa or South Carolina, are philosophical reactionaries and theocrats, who view their every vote solely through a sectarian prism. Obviously they are not–especially right now, when it appears that the 2011-2012 election cycle is going to be far more focused on fiscal issues than moral ones. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there are a great many Republican primary and caucus goers who will want to be certain that their chosen candidate isn’t entirely mainstream. Of course, they won’t want a maniac or a zealot…but neither, perhaps, are they necessarily going to want someone whose beliefs, at least according to Newsweek magazine, when it comes to government or the arts or the mass media or the best-seller lists or popular culture generally, “rocks!”
Over the years I, like many other members of the Mormon church, have been fascinated by the Romney candidacy, as no doubt millions of Catholics were fascinated by Kennedy’s run for office. That fascination has many sources, I suppose, but none more so than this: that Romney has to walk–and has himself chosen to walk–a very thin tightrope. On the one hand, America has changed since 1960: the classical liberal answers that a half-century ago were mostly accepted as unquestionably true when it comes the maintenance of American democracy have become subject to serious critique and challenge. Large numbers of conservatives–and more importantly, a sometimes-controlling faction of the Republican party–look instead for someone who is capable of challenging the secular excesses of American democracy (though usually they don’t put it that way), a candidate who will speak of America in religious and moral terms, and appeal to values they believe (with some justification) that liberals have disregarded. On the other hand, these conservative voters, expecting to hear something other than classically liberal answers, may have trouble hearing such a culturally conservative and religious message from a Mormon…and the best way for a Mormon to insist upon their place in our democracy and to issue such a message (assuming they don’t want to get into the kind of pretentious philosophy I recommended Romney try years ago) is to employ exactly those Kennedyesque claims. It’s a puzzle, and Romney has committed himself to trying to figure it out. Obviously, religious “moments” were a good deal easier to deal with 50 years ago.