Romney’s Struggles and The Wall of American Civil Religion

At the risk of adding to the monolith of analysis about Mitt Romney’s political struggles in the GOP primaries, I will posit the thesis (more as a question to be further considered) that one of his political problems entails his LDS faith contravening a real, but not-honestly-conceded, American civil religion consisting of some general, traditionalist Protestant consensus of faith. By many accounts, this (largely trinitarian) Protestant consensus was once extremely prominent in America, but it may now be confined to a major constituency within the Republican Party. Lee Trepanier and Lynita Newswander’s new article in ANAMNESIS reveals the dark history of Mormons hitting the wall of this American (Protestant) civil religion during the mid nineteenth century. With this in mind, I question whether Romney has also been slamming into this wall during his current and previous primary campaigns.

If this is correct, some alteration has occurred in the former traditional Protestant consensus that formerly functioned as a dominant civil religion, but now lurks in the GOP as a shadow of its former self. As seen by relative success of Rick Santorum, the Protestant consensus now accepts (for political purposes) Roman Catholics. This could partially be due to recent Protestant recognitions that the RC’s trinitarian faith (unlike the LDS) has more theological similarities than differences relative to their own creeds, and it might also be due (in part) to feeling besieged by other non-Christian cultural rivals that are now also prominent in the “Republic.” Such questions are ripe for further examination, and poor Mitt might be the specimen that spurs this analysis.

13 comments on this post.
  1. Russell Arben Fox:

    Thanks much for this link, Peter. For whatever it’s worth, this thesis is pretty similar to the one I advanced–though in a somewhat different way–at a conference on Mormonism and American Politics at Columbia University back in February. The video is here; I really need to (re)write my presentation and post it in some form, eventually.

  2. John Haas:

    I doubt very much any of these attitudes have much at all to do with theology–Americans just aren’t all that theological. What they do care about–and long have–is loyalty, specifically a commitment to intellectual individualism. Catholics in America–especially since Vatican II, and in obedience to the council’s “spirit”–have assimilated to this posture very successfully.

    Santorum is part and parcel of this process–his right-wingery, his war-mongering particularly–has as little to do with devotion to the pope as does Charles Curran’s moral theology. The general population can’t avoid witnessing the wide disparity of positions Catholics hold in this country–from the late Ted Kennedy, to Anthony Scalia–and they rightly conclude that while these postures have docrinal referents, neither doctrine nor ecclesial authority is dictating them.

    Mormons have not received the same level of observation or appreciation from other Americans: they are unknown, and so un-trusted. You need not be exactly the same as these Americans to get their vote–witness, eg, George H. W. Bush’s popularity with the Southern “bubbas” in 1988–but you do need to be recognizeable and familiar. Romney’s bumping upagainst that problem (especially in the South), but I’m not sure that isn’t the least of his problems.

  3. Steve Weigle:

    Sir, I attribute some of Santorum’s success to the siege mentality of Christian Republicans, a response to the attitude like that of President Obama, who explained Americans ‘cling to religion’ out of fear, and the feeling among white Christians that it is perfectly respectable to hate, vilify, and degrade them exclusively.

    Santorum makes explicit appeals to ‘our culture’ and traditional values (what those are, I don’t pretend to know, except I’m not sure I share Santorum’s values). So long as a candidate treats Christians like thoughtful, sentient human beings he’ll receive some votes. Romney, on the other hand, is running on an economic platform, not making the same cultural plays. I suspect most Trinitarian Christians wouldn’t have an objection to a Mormon candidate who made references to a common culture. Romney’s just not connecting with them on the same level as Santorum.

  4. D.W. Sabin:

    All I know from direct experience is that Wallace Stegner, a scribbler of some talent once quipped “if I’m ever in a disaster, I hope its within a days drive of Utah”.

    He said this because from the Depression onwards, the Mormon Church has dispensed remarkable levels of aid to those in need, Mormon or not. The day after the Teton Dam flood, there were convoys of aid streaming north from Salt Lake City to their own in Ideeho of course but shouldn’t we always strive to aid our own?

    More recently, some of the first major convoys of aid streaming supplies into New Orleans after hurricane Katrina were organized by the very efficient organization and established larder of the LDS church . I am quite sure there are many smaller and individual efforts employed by this church to help both Mormons and non-mormons, wherever tragedy occurs.

    If this aint Christian, well I damned well don’t know what Christian is. Perhaps this is obvious.

    Not that I am so enamored of candidate Romney or the beloved half of my family that are Mormon in general but to dispute the Christian bonafides of a church whose essential efforts are undeniably Christian in many ways , well, this damned well grates.

    When the people of New Orleans were awash in despair, some of their first relief was offered by hands out-stretched from the Mormon church. To their Credit, the Leadership of the LDS church did not lecture the residents of the Delta that their misfortune was a result of divine retribution, they just went to work helping a fellow being.

    Romney’s chief deficit is that he seems so defensive about this great , oft-demonstrated heritage. He spends too much time wondering what other people want him to be while other candidates spend too much time telling other people what they should be.

    Meanwhile, Babylon on the Potomac continues to fester.

  5. John Haas:

    I’m a little confused about Mr. Sabin’s point. Is he saying that the Mormon tradition of helping the distressed translates into government actions such as Romneycare, and that therefore we should want to bring Utah to the Potomac? Don’t we pretty much have that already?

  6. D.W. Sabin:

    Do I want to bring Utah to the Potomac?, hell no, I wish they were still in Illynoise and left the Red Rock to me and the Diggers but then we would have never had enjoyed the Rasberry Shakes on Bear Lake or the comely dining at the Idle aisle Cafe in Brigham City.

    If you think you’re confused by my comments, you should try being me, festering in the manifest confusion of my addled conscious.

    But to your point, no…..I want no overwhelming edifice in Foggy Bottom, I favor subsidiarity . The Mormon church doing its works locally or farther a field is a perfect example of the beauty of subsidiarity and religion’s role in it.

    What gooses my carb is this relentless preening amongst Christians as to who is most Christian. Pride goeth before the fall.

    Then again, as a Pagan, perhaps I should enjoy the divisions.

  7. Rob G:

    By any traditional doctrinal standard (Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant) Mormons are not Christians, good fruit notwithstanding. Now the fact that their fruit sometimes outshines that of true Christians is a scandal, but it doesn’t negate the seriousness of their theological errors. Calling a spade a spade isn’t preening.

  8. Stephen:

    There is one obvious counter-example to the thesis that Romney’s lackluster reception from the Tea Party folks is theological in nature: Glenn Beck. He was at least as visible in his Mormonism as Romney, but, for a while at least, many of the same people who are suspicious of Romney adored him. I think it has much more to do with class, personality, and the overall managerial orientation of his candidacy.

  9. Rob G:

    Actually, I think Beck’s popularity had more to do with the resonance of his message with that of mainstream, neocon-influenced American conservatives than anything else. A lot of folks that I know saw him as a sort of Limbaugh with religion added, and were willing to overlook his religious heterodoxy seeing that he talked a good game about American exceptionalism, the Christianity of the Founders, etc. As sad as it may be to say, if Romney talked more like Beck he’d have a lot more support among many GOP voters.

  10. Stephen:

    I completely agree, Rob G. My point was that it if the Tea Party GOP voters were so opposed to Mormonism per se, they wouldn’t have been such big fans of Glenn Beck.

    In fact, there is a strain of Mormon thought, like Beck and Cleon Skousen, that outshines any Protestant or Catholic in its belief in American exceptionalism—it claims that the Constitution was divinely inspired! It’s understandable why this would be appealing to the “America is a Christian nation!” crowd.

  11. D.W. Sabin:

    Cripes, I just hate it when I have to defend Mormons. Fox should be doing this.

    Doctrine aside, good Christian deeds are simply good deeds. If Christ left us any enduring message, it is to love thy brother and extend a hand to those in need, particularly those who one might consider “the other”.

  12. Rob G:

    ~~If Christ left us any enduring message, it is to love thy brother and extend a hand to those in need, particularly those who one might consider “the other”.~~

    Enduring as that message is, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” trumps it methinks, both in boldness and in import.

  13. JAG:

    From Lewis’ Mere Christianity:

    … People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?” or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it…
    The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said–so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully–”Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should?…”
    They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word….
    Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say “deepening,” the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ…. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word “good”. Meanwhile, the word “Christian” will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.
    We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to “the disciples,” to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were “far closer to the spirit of Christ” than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine
    lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

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