Religion, Religion Everywhere: Too Many Drops to Drink?


Kevin Coe and David Comke ask, "Think Religion Plays a Bigger Role in Politics Today?" They answer "yes," with statistics from a communications/rhetoric content analysis. If in the current presidential tussle you think you're hearing all religion all the time, maybe that's because you are, at least in comparison to other historical reference points. They conclude:

Wherever we looked, whatever we measure, we find the same pattern. Presidents and presidential hopefuls since Reagan have been afraid to be seen as the apostate in the room. They put religion front and center to show they’re not. This new age is one that many past presidents would hardly recognize. One can’t help but wonder what would become of a candidate today who, like John Kennedy in 1960, “believe[s] in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”

But wait, there's more ! A doctoral student at Georgetown asks "What does Mormonism mean to Mitt"? His answer: more than might appear at first glance from "The Speech":

Like Catholicism, Mormonism is a religion of works; salvation is achieved through participation in the ordinances Mormons believe their church alone is empowered to administer and obedience to the commandments of scripture. Unlike Catholicism, Mormonism is a lay faith; congregations are run by members of their own flocks, and every Mormon is rotated through a series of callings, or particular tasks, from teaching youth Sunday school to coordinating community service. (Romney himself has served as a bishop, head of a congregation.) These characteristics, combined with the faith’s atheological character, mean that Mormon culture tends toward legalism and the celebration of effort. . . . .

In all these ways, then, Mitt Romney has been telling us about his Mormonism all along. It is a faith compatible with American civic religion in ways deeper than most observers note. Romney has interpreted it in ways designed to appeal to the constituency he seeks, emphasizing Mormonism’s close identification of religion with moral behavior, and drawing on certain social policies derived from distinctive Mormon theology. Tensions clearly remain, but they are primarily on a theoretical level; like Kennedy, Romney is reluctant to discuss his religion in too great detail; he rarely if ever mentions the theological imperatives behind his politics, and seeks to paper over the gap between the essentially theocratic, communitarian way Mormons imagine religion and the individualistic ethos that penetrates American Protestantism to its core.

In a more critical vein, Steven Conn blasts Romney for forgetting that "The 'Wall of Separation' Has Preserved Religion -- Including Mormonism":

The lesson of Mormon history would seem to be clear: keep the church out of the state and the state will stay out of the church. Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy should be an opportunity to remind Americans about that critical lesson. Unfortunately, Romney chose instead to tell the religious right what it wants to hear: more prayer in public places. Romney's understanding of theology may or may not be palatable to the Republican base he courts. What should trouble us more than his Mormonism is his misunderstanding of our tradition of religious freedom. Religion has flourished in the United States precisely because we have separated state and church.

I'd say there are other reasons for religion's flourishing, but that's certainly one. I'd bet, too, that if he wins the nomination, Romney may tilt back towards a more separationist position, if indeed he survives the evangelical anti-Mormon vote first during the early primary season.

If you call now, you'll get yet another special offer!

Finally, George McKenna argues that the true heirs of New England Puritan Providentialism are Southerners (white ones, I presume he means), and Catholics. Mormons too, maybe? Blue state liberals, out of the gene pool!

". . . during the brief Kennedy years patriotism enjoyed something of a renascence in high cultural circles. American history was viewed as an inspiring story of a people struggling to realize the ideals of freedom and democracy, and America was a force for good in the world.

All that changed with Vietnam, Watergate, and long national Lenten period that followed. The Northeast, the birthplace of the Puritan narrative of an American “mission,” was now the region most hospitable to doubters. It was all just a facade, they claimed, for American capitalism’s global ambitions. New England, the birthplace of American providentialism, was abandoning the whole idea of Providence in American life, while Southerners, the outsiders in the Puritan-told story of America, and the Roman Catholics, once considered un-American because of their allegiance to a “foreign prince,” were now the most fervent believers in the Puritans’ patriotic account of America’s glorious mission. The wild olives, the church-going Catholics and Southerners, were now grafted to the main stem of American patriotism.

In the preface to his biography of Increase Mather, historian Michael G. Hall remarks on the similarity between the beliefs of Mather and Pope John Paul II on the subject of angels. Hall considers this ironic, given the hostility of Mather and other Puritans toward the Catholic Church. But perhaps, by the 1980s, Increase Mather’s attitude toward Catholics might have softened. Not only on the subject of angels but on an extensive range of creedal questions, from the divinity of Jesus to the hope for life after death, the beliefs of the Puritans, evangelicals, and faithful Catholics are almost identical, and stand in sharp contrast to the allegorized, secularized approach of liberal Protestantism. Even more striking was the similarity of their positions on moral issues like gay marriage and abortion (which the Puritans would not have even considered debatable)--once again in contrast to the liberal position. To crown it all, the three of them -- the Catholics, the Southerners, and the Puritans of Mather’s day-- shared the view that America was divinely summoned to the task of Christianizing wilderness, a view now scornfully rejected in the cultural centers of Greater New England. If he were alive now, Increase Mather, one of the greatest champions of the New England Way, might find himself allied with Catholics and Southerners--and alienated from his own region.

[See the comments section for some critical comments on McKenna's overdrawn sense of Puritanism].

And don't even get us started on Huckabee! See yesterday's New York Times Magazine for the latest profile. See also GOP Candidates Scrambling to Cope With Rise of Huckabee.The "Club for Growth" and Grover Norquist "drown-government-in-the-bathtub" types are attacking him ferociously -- and with enemies like that, who needs friends? On the other hand, here's a painful revelation:

To this day, Huckabee regards [hyper-conservative evangelist James] Robison as one of his role models in the art of communication, along with Ronald Reagan and the radio commentator Paul Harvey.

How unfortunate.

Perhaps that explains what George Wills calls his "incoherent populism," such as his awful "Fair Tax" scheme. On the other hand, let's close with a brief salute to the shy guy at the dance, at one of his own campaign events:

The band was tight that night, but the show started slowly. Only a few couples took the floor. A man who looked like Dick Cheney did a sedate version of the Chicken with his wife, who also looked like Dick Cheney. ‘‘Get out there and dance,’’ Huckabee exhorted the crowd. ‘‘Let’s show the world that conservative Republicans can have as much fun as anybody.’’ Huckabee, I later learned, doesn’t dance himself, or even move around onstage. He must be one of the few guys of his generation who didn’t join a band to meet girls.

Now there's the guy I can relate to; he has a good beat, and he can't dance to it.


Anonymous said…
I want this on blog-record. No matter what McKenna says or Morone in _Hellfire Nation_, we are all NOT Puritans. I, for one, am not. They died long ago and no actual Puritan would understand our society at all. Why do we look to the Mathers or John Edwards when we could just as easily look to Billy Sunday or Dwight Moody or Amy Semple McPherson to understand religion (or rather Protestant evangelicalism) today?
Kelly J. Baker said…
Following Ed's comment, I think it is much more interesting to see what Christian movements in the past or present claim the banner of the Puritans. For instance, the 1920s Klan claimed that Jonathan Edwards would have been a Klansman to show their Puritanesque heritage. Why not pay attention to claims like that one (a personal favorite of mine) instead of applying the label so broadly?
Anonymous said…
Good call Kelly! Yes indeed, Puritanism as a myth or trope that can be used/deployed at various moments and in various ways. Let us not forget the 'Puritan' v. 'Cavalier' origins war that paved the way for the Civil War! So many southerners in the 19th century would have been deeply offended to have been called Puritans.
Anonymous said…
I really like your comment, Ed. I suppose commentators will stop with the Puritan references as soon as conservative politicians stop employing the "city on a hill" motif. Imprecision reigns. Ronald Reagan even managed this description of John Winthrop: "he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man."

As for me, I'm waiting for the GOP candidate who cites as his role model the "historian and blogger Paul Harvey."

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