Mitt Romney and Faith-Based Politics

Jon Chait refers to me as "brilliant" in his latest TRB, no doubt in an attempt to defang my inevitable rejoinder to his critique of "faith-based politics" - but no such luck, Chait! He begins by complaining about evangelical Christians who might not vote for Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon:

If it were possible for a politician to sue voters for religious discrimination, Mitt Romney would have an open-and-shut case against the Republican electorate. Here is a man possessing all the known qualifications for the job of GOP presidential nominee--strong communications skills, a successful governorship, total agreement on every issue, Reaganesque hair--and yet he may well be denied it on account of his faith. In a poll released in June, 30 percent of Republicans said they'd be less likely to vote for a Mormon. One conservative televangelist dispensed with the subtlety and warned his flock,"If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!" These attacks have nothing to do with how Romney would conduct himself as president. They're purely theological. Romney's critics are declaring they couldn't support Romney on the sole basis that they consider Mormonism un-Christian.

Well, first of all, polls like this one (see Table 4) suggest that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to rule out voting for a candidate on the basis of his Mormon faith. Now maybe all those anti-Mormon Democrats are African-American Baptists or working-class Catholics, but Dems with a post-grad education are more anti-Latter Day Saint than Dems with just a high school degree, which at the very least suggests that there are plenty of secular voters who wouldn't pull the lever for a Mormon. Not, presumably, because they want to establish an "only Trinitarians need apply" standard for public office in the U.S., but because they consider Mormonism weird and cultish, and they don't want a President who buys into its tenets.

Now, I think this is a mistake where the contemporary Latter-Day Saints are concerned, but I don't think it's a mistake in principle. Having no legal religious test for office doesn’t mean that a candidate's religious faith isn’t worth considering when you're deciding whom to vote for. I probably wouldn't vote for a practicing Scientologist or a member of the Unification Church, for instance, for what I hope are self-evident reasons. I'd vote for a Mormon today, but I would have thought twice about voting for a Mormon candidate in the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. And even where my own faith is concerned, I wouldn't have thought it unreasonable for a Protestant American to be leery of a Catholic candidate for President in the era of The Syllabus of Errors. Taking these sorts of things into account is the essence of good sense, not evidence of religious bigotry.

Chait goes on:

Unless you yearn for a Romney presidency--which I don't, particularly--the real significance here is that nobody is challenging the premise of faith-based politics. Romney could argue that his religion is unrelated to how he would conduct himself in office, as John F. Kennedy famously did in 1960. But he hasn't done so, and,by all accounts, he won't. Instead, he is defending himself on theological grounds, trying to persuade social conservatives that Mormonism is more compatible with evangelical Protestantism than they think.

This seems to be basically wrong. Romney hasn't been giving speeches about how Mormon theology is consonant with Trinitarian Christianity. Instead, he's been dodging those kind of questions, while giving speeches arguing that his religious beliefs lead him to the same policy conclusions about abortion, same-sex marriage, and so forth, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals tend to reach. He's arguing that his positions on the issues are more important than their theological underpinnings, in other words, not the other way around.

I think that even this more minimalist theology-policy connection ticks Chait off, though, since he turns quickly from Romney to the big picture - his opposition to a "faith-based politics" that seems to embrace any intrusion of religious language or arguments into a political debate. He writes:

Advocates of faith-based politics take as their premise the inverted assumption that secularism is an assault upon faith. "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square," admonished Barack Obama last summer. The brilliant social conservative Ross Douthat has argued in First Things that the rise of the religious right is merely "the Republican reaction against the Democrats' decision to become the first major party in American history to pander to a sizeable bloc of aggressively secular voters."

"Aggressive" is a strange adjective here, given that secularists are not known for door-to-door proselytizing or massacring members of opposing religious groups. Secular political discourse does not place religious voters or candidates at a disadvantage. It merely denies them an advantage. A religious candidate can campaign on the war in Iraq or health care or gay marriage just as easily as a secular candidate can. But a secular candidate can't run on his faith in the way a religious candidate can. ("Secular," of course, means a lack of political religiosity, rather than a lack of religious belief.) Religion-infused politics places a massive handicap on candidates and voters who are secular or subscribe to minority religions.

I'll stick with the adjective. It's possible to be "aggressive," particularly in democratic politics, without physically bludgeoning someone over the head with your copy of Letter to a Christian Nation - and calling for an entirely "secular political discourse," and accusing those who stray outside its bounds of being "theocrats" or "Christianists" or what-have-you (I’m not fingering Chait here; just his co-unbelievers), seems pretty aggressive to me. Secularists who take this tack are essentially telling their fellow citizens that their deepest convictions, which often go to precisely the sort of just-society issues that politics is supposed to reckon with, are beyond the pale of public discussion. (Fr. Neuhaus made this point rather well in the recent Economist debate on precisely this subject.) So I can make an argument for racial inequality based on Social Darwinist theory, but you may not make an argument for racial equality based on the New Testament's vision of the nature of man. I can invoke Paul Berman in support of the invasion of Iraq, but you may not bring up Stanley Hauerwas to oppose it. I can make an argument against income redistribution based on Ayn Rand's Objectivist theory, but you may not make an argument for progressive taxation based on Walter Rauschenbusch's Social Gospel. And so forth.

I'll quote Neuhaus in response:

Our political system calls for open-ended argument about all the great issues that touch upon the question “How ought we to order our life together?” ... The idea that some citizens should be excluded from addressing that question because their arguments are religious, or that others should be excluded because their arguments are nonreligious or antireligious, is an idea deeply alien to the representative democracy that this constitutional order is designed to protect. A foundational principle of that order is that all citizens have equal standing in the public square.

Chait's chief complaint seems to be that the intrusion of religious language into politics inevitably leaves secular politicians and activists at a disadvantage. And he's absolutely right - by cutting themselves from metaphysical claims, secularists come to debates over justice and fairness, political right and political wrong, with arguments that can seem thin and bloodless compared to their religious counterparts, particularly in a country with a civil religion as potent as our own. But this is their free intellectual choice: Nobody's forcing them to disbelieve in the "endowed by their Creator" part of the Declaration of Independence (which lends that document an awful lot of its oomph). And it seems a little much to argue that in order to avoid handicapping their secularist fellow citizens, religious Americans should unilaterally disarm, divesting themselves of their own deepest convictions the instant they step into the political fray.

I do give Chait points, though, for coming up with an, um, unique rebuttal to the “what about MLK?” line of argument that always seems to flummox advocates of a purely secular politics.

Then we have the civil rights movement. This has become the social right's favorite example--a cuddly historical mascot for anti-secular politics. The argument is that, if you support Martin Luther King--and who doesn't these days?--you shouldn't have a problem with other kinds of faith-based politics.

It's certainly true that the civil rights movement was rooted in black churches and the language of religious liberation. But this was an artifact of a unique situation. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the one-party white supremacist character of Southern politics had destroyed every other possible outlet for African American politics other than the church. Civil rights activism took the form of preaching because that was the only form black politics could take.

There’s an important truth buried somewhere in this strange argument, which is that faith-based politics is more appropriately applied to deep political injustices than to superficial ones. When you invoke Biblical language to oppose slavery or segregation, abortion or an unjust war, there’s a consonance between rhetoric and reality that doesn’t exist when you invoke the New Testament to support progressive taxation or school vouchers.

But as I said, that point is buried; on the surface Chait’s argument is condescending and bizarre. It’s so kind of him to grant the civil rights movement permission to talk about Moses and the Promised Land, so gracious of him to let them appeal to their fellow Southerners’ Christian principles in making the case for human equality, so considerate of him to grant a special exception to the rule of secular politics. I wonder – just how many alternative political outlets would have had to be available to the civil rights movement to render MLK’s sermonizing speeches unseemly in Chait’s eyes? (Quite a few did exist, after all, starting with the NAACP – and of course as Christopher Hitchens never tires of pointing out, there were atheists and Communists doing their part for civil rights as well.) More importantly, where does one apply for the special License to Commit Faith-Based Politics that Chait grants to King and Abernathy? Is there an Office of Causes So Desperate That It’s Okay To Invoke the Supreme Being? (Maybe pro-lifers should camp out there, in the hopes that some kindly bureaucrat will smile on them one day.)

No, this won’t do. There’s no standard you can set that doesn’t fatally compromise the standing of religious Americans, and unduly privilege the interests (and prejudices) of their secular fellow citizens. Faith-based politics is often unwise and counterproductive, God knows. But it isn’t un-American; if anything, it’s more American than any purely-secular alternative. And so it should remain.