Sunday, December 9, 2007

Mormonism and "Moronism"

Mitt Romney’s December 6 speech at Poppy Doc Bush’s Presidential library was spun as his “Kennedy moment,” where he would lay to rest the Mormon Question, much as Kennedy’s speech on September 12, 1960 before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is said to have removed the Catholic Question from our political life. It seems that evangelical Christians in the early primary states are enough bothered by Romney’s Mormonism that he had no choice but to address the issue now. His strategy for winning the Republican nomination is predicated on doing well in the early p

In fact, he only mentioned Mormonism once in that much touted speech, and he said nothing at all about its bizarre beliefs. Instead, unlike Kennedy, who boldly defended secularism, Romney used the occasion to preach about the importance of a “faith perspective” in politics, insisting that in this regard he’s of one mind with the evangelicals. As I wrote in an earlier entry, Mormonism shouldn’t be the issue. Mormons believe ridiculous things. But so do the evangelicals Romney was trying to win over. So does his new main rival in Iowa, Mike Huckabee, the likeable and much reduced Arkansas governor and former minister (Southern Baptist). So do all Christians, Muslims and Jews. They are all the heirs of ancestors gullible enough to have fallen prey to snake oil salesmen -- those of them who did not fall prey on their own. The difference between mainstream Protestants, Catholics and Jews, on the one hand, and Mormons, on the other, is that snake oil seems benign the more it has aged, and the snake oil the Mormons fell for is too fresh by centuries. To turn Romney’s (and Huckabee’s and the evangelicals’) position on its head, the issue should be belief itself. It is one thing to identify with a “faith tradition.” There are all kinds of reasons why someone – especially someone running for elective office -- might do that; none of them good, but some of them fairly harmless. On the other hand, wanting to put the snake oil they or their ancestors fell for in control is worrisome indeed. Rudy Giuliani’s entire (and very implausible) candidacy is based on how worrisome it is that Islamic snake oil is in control in much of the world. How hard is it to see that the snake oil Americans feel comfortable with is no better?

Catholicism peddles ancient snake oil, but Catholic meddling in political affairs is modern and continuing. This is why Kennedy had to lay to rest any notion that he would be the Vatican’s man in Washington. I would venture that he was able to do so – not just to the Houston ministers but to nearly everyone -- because like most sensible, intelligent, educated “believers,” he wore his “faith” lightly. Everyone understood this; everyone expected it. I would venture too that the problem the pastors and their flocks had with Kennedy’s Catholicism had very little to do with the Catholic religion. No doubt, as one plumbs the depths of low church Protestant denominations, some vestigial post-Reformation anti-Catholic animosity can still be found. But the bigger problem in the Bible Belt in 1960, and not only there, was good old American nativist hostility towards immigrants. There had been a lot of that, decades earlier, directed against immigrants from Catholic Europe, but it was on the wane by the time of Kennedy’s speech. In 1960, the immigrants the nativists loved to hate – mainly, the Irish, the Italians, and various Slavic peoples – were already well assimilated. [So too were the Jews, the most venerable target of Protestant and Catholic animosity.] But the news had yet to register in the political culture. Thus Kennedy had to show not just that it was OK that he was Catholic, hardly anyone cared about that, but also, mainly, that it was OK that he was Irish. Of that there was no question. From Camelot’s inception, if not from long before, it was clear to all, that the Kennedys were the equals of any WASP dynasty past or present. Compare them, for a moment, with the descendants of Prescott Bush. The so-called Kennedy moment that pundits have been chattering about before and after Romney’s speech, had more to do with welcoming the Irish into national politics at the highest level than with fears that the Vatican and the White House would effectively merge. The Irish were the vanguard. Soon other assimilated immigrant groups would follow.

Since 9/11, virulent nativism is back, especially in Republican ranks, but this time it is directed against immigrants from the global South, not Ireland or southern and eastern Europe. The contemporary phenomenon pits Catholics (along with others) against Catholics and, of course, against Muslims. Romney’s speech, unlike Kennedy’s, did nothing to counter this unfortunate turn of events. If anything, his candidacy reinforces it, though not quite as blatantly as that of some of his rivals.

In 1960, cultural diversity was seldom “celebrated,” and the longstanding black/white divide that is so central to American history was about to explode – not just in the segregated South but in the North as well. In these respects, there has been progress since Kennedy’s time. But, back then, the political culture was resolutely secular. Even the Houston ministers were on board, as Kennedy intuited. In 1960, only a handful of political actors succumbed to theocratic temptations. Lets call them the morons.

[I use the word “moron” not just because it is only one letter away from “Mormon” – though I confess to being mindful of that fact -- and not because theocrats are always literally moronic, though they often are. I use it because it is moronic, in the plain sense of the term, to try to undo one of the few indisputably progressive achievements of the first two hundred years of our political history – the relegation of “faith” (or its absence) to a realm of private conscience, outside the political arena.]

Times change, though, and not always for the better. In recent years, the secular character of our politics has become less secure. With the exception of Ron Paul, all the Republican candidates, not just Mitt Romney, want to be the standard bearer for those who would make our country “one nation under God” in more than just idle pledges of allegiance. They are all proponents of what I suggest we call “moronism.” Were he, “God forbid,” to win in 2008, Romney would be the country’s first Mormon President. Too bad for him that he can no longer be the first moron President; the chances for that vanished when five right wing Supreme Court justices decided the 2000 election. What is still possible, though, is that Romney can be the first moron President to welcome his co-religionists, the benighted followers of Joseph Smith Jr., into the larger moronic tent – in other words, into the company of Protestant evangelicals, charismatics, socially conservative Catholics, and Zion besotted Jews.

After 2004, the Democrats seemed poised to abandon the secularism Kennedy defended by becoming as ostentatiously faith friendly as their Republican rivals. Being good Clintonites, their policy was -- if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. However George Bush has given moronism such a bad name by now that the Democratic candidates, while keeping their options open, have remained, for the time being, in the secular camp. Even Hillary Clinton has been mum on the “politics of meaning” that she tried to float back in her “first lady” days. Lets work to keep it that way. Too often, where Republicans go, Democrats follow – in a kinder, gentler and, lately, more competent (and therefore potentially more effective) way. Since it is far from certain that they won’t follow Mitt Romney and the other Republicans down the path Kennedy wisely sought to avoid, we have our work cut out for us.

No comments: