Sunday, June 3, 2007

Snake Oil: Old and New

Conventional wisdom has it that, in 1960, candidate John Kennedy convinced prominent Protestant clerics that, though Catholic, he would never allow his religion to prevent him from executing his Constitutional duties. Thereafter, the story goes, the Presidency has been open to Catholics. The conventional wisdom now is that, with Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for President, a similar watershed moment is at hand for Mormons. Notwithstanding the fact that, since Kennedy, only one Roman Catholic, John Kerry, has been a major party candidate, it is true that Catholicism is no obstacle in the way of becoming President. It was probably also true before 1960. If Kennedy really did break down a barrier, it had more to do with his being Irish than Catholic. What about Mitt Romney and Mormonism?

Needless to say, like the hapless J. Danforth Quayle, Mitt Romney is “no John Kennedy.” But leave aside the fact that his Mormonism is the least objectionable thing about him; and overlook the likelihood that his candidacy, though well-funded, will falter as Republicans, desperately seeking the Second Coming of the Gipper, flock to Fred Thompson; a man who, like their hero, is a mediocre actor with decent communication skills, reactionary politics, and enough worldliness not to embarrass wealthy Republicans who realize at last that Andover, Yale and the Harvard Business School have a lot to answer for. But it is worth thinking about why, back in 1968, Romney’s father, no less identified as a Mormon than his son, lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon -- not because of his Mormonism but because he said he’d been “brainwashed” about Vietnam. [The fact is that what George Romney said was a bit more nuanced than the conventional wisdom lets on; and no less “presidential” than the excuses Hillary Clinton – and even John Kerry and John Edwards – offer for their past support of the Iraq war.] Why is the Mormon Question more of a problem now than it was in the 1960s? Conventional wisdom has no answer.

I suspect that, in George Romney’s case, it was just assumed, in those (somewhat) saner times, that his Mormonism was an accident of birth that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It didn’t get in the way, after all, of his running American Motors and becoming extremely rich. Similarly, Kennedy’s Catholicism was not a problem because it was more or less understood that, as with other politicians, his religious affiliation, though indispensable, was largely superficial. For Kennedy, as for most well-educated Catholic males (and many females) of his generation in both Europe and North America, Church membership had few, if any, practical ramifications. For many Protestants and nearly all Jews, the situation was the same. How far backwards we have fallen!

A true Catholic would have been and would still be a problem, as would be a true believer in any of the other so-called Abrahamic religions. But Catholicism is especially worrisome. Throughout its history, the Church has seldom been a temporal power of consequence. But it has always been an eminently political organization. To this day, it meddles ceaselessly. It was worse in 1960. Then Christian Democratic parties, supported by the United States in conjunction with local elites, were a force to be reckoned with in Germany and Italy and in parts of Latin America. In historically Catholic countries, Catholicism was, by common consensus, a weapon in the struggle against Communism. The Cold War is over, but the Church still weighs in whenever it can – especially on “social” issues, like abortion. If it could, it would be an even more malign force – remember its efforts to keep contraception unavailable in Ireland and elsewhere (including the United States), and, of course, “Divorce, Italian Style”! No small wonder that, for thoughtful people, Catholicism was an issue in 1960. However, what neutralized concerns then was not, as conventional wisdom would have it, Kennedy’s courageous forthrightness; it was the unspoken realization that, at a deep level, it didn’t matter – because Kennedy, like everyone else worth taking seriously, including George Romney, was beyond the “self-imposed nonage” of true belief.

But that was then, and this is now. Today, right-wing evangelicals have become the main force in the Republican Party; for more than six years, they have had their man in the White House. Never ones to lead, Democrats have fallen over each other professing faith. [Witness Bill Clinton's shameless performance, last week, at the dedication of Billy Graham's library!] I confess that I find it hard to believe that they really believe what they say. If I’m right, perhaps we haven’t regressed quite so much from the Kennedy days. But appearances count too, even if they belie underlying realities. Mormonism may matter to Mitt. If so, there is more than the usual cause for concern. Like the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church has always had a significant theocratic streak. Utah and elsewhere where substantial numbers of Mormons live have been the worse for it. A Morman true believer in office would be worrisome; just as a believing, not just practicing, Catholic would.

The conventional view is that if Mormonism is a problem it is because the Mormons have weird and easily ridiculed beliefs. If Romney remains a serious contender, we can count on evangelical and mainstream Christians to drive the point home. But this is another case of the pot calling the kettle black. The question is why Mormon beliefs seem ridiculous while others, equally ridiculous, do not.

It should go without saying, though it unfortunately does not, that the most ridiculous belief of all is one that Mormons share with Jews, Christians and Muslims: that there is an omnipotent, omniscent, perfectly good Being, the creator and designer of the universe, who takes a personal interest in we humans here below. What we should be worrying about is that, according to polling data, roughly 90% of the population in this Land of the Free think that denying that contention is a disqualification for public office! In a better possible world, just the opposite would be the case.

However, in the conventional view, what is worrisome about Mormonism is not what it has in common with other Abrahamic religions, but what sets it apart. That would mostly be its age. Mormonism is the religion of nineteenth century American snake oil salesmen. The difference from Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that most of their snake oil salesmen lived so long ago, and influenced our culture so extensively, that we don’t notice how weird their snake oil is. The beliefs they installed have aged, not always gracefully, but for those that remain current, in ways that confer an aspect of “normalcy” that parvenu Mormon beliefs lack. To most Americans, Mormonism does seem weird. But from a God’s eye view, so to speak, it is no weirder than traditional Christianity, Judaism or Islam. As a rule of thumb, the older the religion, the more snake oil salesmen it has had and therefore the more weird beliefs it has accumulated. For sheer quantity, Mormonism can’t compete.

In other words, the problem is not the nature of the “revelation” upon which Mormonism rests, but its lateness. In recent decades, Mormons have made concerted efforts to “normalize” their faith. They long ago abandoned practices, like polygamy, that mainstream society finds offensive. They have even accommodated to the exigencies of race relations by purging their theology of overt racism and opening church offices to people of color. In short, they have done what Catholics and others have done before them – adapted to the modern world. Their beliefs are no less weird for the effort. But neither are they weirder than the vintage beliefs that seem “normal.”

The Democrats’ senior statesman, Jimmy Carter, recently became estranged from his party’s leadership because he dared argue for fairness for Palestinians. [See Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006).] The explanation, of course, is that Democrats are in the thrall of the Israel lobby; not that they believe that the divinity moonlighted as a real estate agent for his chosen people and therefore that their interests supersede all other concerns. [As I said in “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism” (May 28), leading Democrats didn’t get where they are by being stupid; that only works for Republicans.] What is worth noting, though, is that, throughout his book, Carter refers to the land Israelis and Palestinians share as a Holy Land that the Perfect Being gave to the Jews. No one finds this strange. Why then should it seem odd to so many that Mormons make similar claims for themselves and for a county in Missouri? Only because “ripeness is all.”

Should we then conclude that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is no more a problem than John Kennedy’s Catholic faith? This question, dear to the punditocracy, is wrongly put. Kennedy’s Catholicism wasn’t a problem. Perhaps the same would have been true of George Romney’s Mormonism. George Bush’s Protestantism is very definitely a problem, despite its mainstream ancestry. The reason why is plain: Bush really is a believer. Unless he’s a better actor than Reagan or Thompson ever were, he isn’t deceiving anybody, including himself, about the genuineness of his weird, ridiculous -- and obviously dangerous – beliefs. The jury is still out on Mitt.

Mormonism was a contrivance of mountebanks and snake oil salesmen. However its “sin” is not that it is ridiculous, though it is, but that it hasn’t had the benefit of thousands of years of “seasoning” – like Judaism, mainstream Christianity, and Islam. Otherwise, Mormonism is no more prepostrous than any of the other faiths we expect our candidates to endorse; as it stands today, it is probably no more dangerous either. That danger is not insignificant; but, as history has shown, so long as our institutions remain fundamentally secular, it is manageable. The far graver danger comes when people, especially people in power, Mormon or otherwise, truly believe the foolishness they profess.

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