On a different subject related to discussion of “theocons,” I noticed Dave Banack at Times and Seasons has a post on the implications of the failure of the Romney campaign for political cooperation among religious conservatives of different religions. As longtime readers already know, Romney’s candidacy and the question of anti-Mormonism during the presidential campaign were my hobbyhorses for more than a few months in ’07 and through Romney’s withdrawal in early ’08, so I have some thoughts on Banack’s argument. Some preliminary points need to be made before I get to the rest of his claims.

Contra Banack, there was nothing surprising about the role of anti-Mormonism in the primaries. As I kept observing during the primaries, anti-Mormon sentiment in America is considerable and widespread and not at all limited just to conservative evangelicals, but it is particularly strong among the latter. People who do not want a Mormon President are very comfortable saying so (there was no issue here of respondents who gave false answers to pollsters), and the only groups whose candidates meet greater resistance with the electorate as a whole are Muslims and atheists. No one would say that it is surprising if a Muslim candidate could not win a presidential nomination or national election, because I think everyone understands that the electorate is not going to support such a candidate precisely because of his religion. Call this identity politics, call it sectarianism if you must, but it is all but unavoidable in a mass democracy in a country where the majority belongs, broadly speaking, to the same religion.

Candidates of minority religions are not going to fare well in national elections here until a considerable majority is non-observant or simply not religious at all. This observation tends to annoy politically active ecumenists who seem to think that religion could not possibly matter so much that it would affect voting or political alliances. It seems to me that this rule about minority religion candidates is true in pretty much any Western-style democracy with a large observant religious population. Indian secularism seems to offer the exception to the rule, as the elevation of Manmohan Singh to the post of PM there shows. Parliamentary systems can be more immune to this rule to the extent that one of the leading parties, as in India, is self-consciously not aligned with any particular religion, and presidential voting involves more of a personal identification with the candidate that makes this issue more significant.

In any case, the opposition was similar, albeit less intense, with a Mormon candidate. The difference is that surprisingly few in the media and the pundit class seemed willing to believe that respondents actually meant it when they said this. That was the fundamental political obstacle that Romney could not have overcome and will not overcome in the future if he tries again. In the event that he somehow prevailed in the primaries, he could never have won a general election with so much built-in opposition to his candidacy. Looking back on the embarrassing campaign and the final result, Republicans might regret McCain’s nomination, but given the intense hostility to Huckabee from the leadership and the movement elite (including many of the very people who later conveniently became devoted Palinites) Romney was the only viable alternative. The presidential vote would have been an even greater defeat for the GOP with Romney at the helm, and a significant part of this would have been on account of his religion.

This does not touch on the flaws that Romney himself had as a candidate, which would have made winning difficult even without the problem of anti-Mormonism, and which complicates the story by using a deeply-flawed candidate and his campaign as the evidence for the limits of political cooperation among different kinds of religious conservatives. It complicates the story because there was good reason to doubt how much Romney actually shared social and religious conservatives’ political goals. Having no pro-life record worth mentioning, given his extremely convenient discovery of the evils of ESCR around the time he began preparing his presidential campaign, he seemed to offer pro-lifers little more than lip service in a campaign against a number of other candidates–including MCain!–whose pro-life credentials were far superior. Perhaps realizing that he had no credibility, Romney was constantly on the attack against his rivals by trying to paint them as insufficiently zealous in the cause. This wasn’t just a case of the zeal of the convert, but it was more like a con-man pretending to be a zealous convert lecturing long-time devotees on their lack of fidelity while trying to convince them to join his pyramid scheme. There were other liabilities, not least of which was his career in private equity firms and his identification with corporate America, which would have become huge drags on the ticket as the financial crisis unfolded.

Now on to Banack’s main points. Referring to Linker’s The Theocons, he writes:

The Theocons book relates the moderate success conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants (i.e., Evangelicals) have achieved while suppressing sectarian differences in the pursuit of conservative political objectives. There’s no reason that approach could not be extended to other religiously minded conservatives.

What I’ve said above explains part of the reason why it cannot be extended to “other religiously-minded conservatives.” Unlike Catholics and Protestants, whose confessional differences are still quite significant for all of the ecumenical cooperation of the last few decades, most of the other religiously-minded conservatives are not Christians, and many belong to religions that not only teach radically different theological doctrines but are also founded on the assumption that the Christianity of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox (and Armenians, Assyrians, etc.) is fundamentally false. As significant and enduring as confessional differences within Christianity are, there is still a common ground, common tradition and shared theological language to which Christians can all appeal (the so-called “Great Tradition”). Most of the “other religiously-minded conservatives” do not share any of this, which makes dialogue, much less political collaboration, much more difficult. The number of people who are deeply concerned about a social conservative agenda but who have no problem endorsing a candidate from such a different religious background does not make up a large percentage of the voting population. Even within the Republican primary electorate, it comes to perhaps 30-33%, and declines considerably outside of Republican primary voters.

Banack:

The religious affiliation of candidates is discussed in media coverage of candidates more now than a generation or two ago, but it has always been one issue among many, not a defining issue. For Romney it became a defining issue. It’s not clear to what extent the media controlled that framing or simply took cues from what readers were interested in reading, but clearly as a result the sectarian edge is sharper and more cutting now and going forward than it has been in the past.

Religious affiliation is more discussed now because America is more religiously diverse, and there are more public policy issues that directly relate to the moral teachings that religiously observant Americans consider important. The media may emphasize the elements of this that generate conflict and drama, but journalists are largely reflecting the changed political landscape. A generation or two ago a self-conscious religious backlash against certain cultural and political changes had not occurred. 40 years ago evangelicals and conservative Catholics had not rebelled against different aspects of the cultural revolution and had not yet altered their voting habits as a result, and even 30 years ago this reaction was still in its early stages. The success that evangelicals and conservative Catholics had in “suppressing sectarian differences in the pursuit of conservative political objectives” led more or less directly to the greater political salience of religious affiliation. To the extent that conservative Catholics and Protestants have succeeded in burying the hatchet, or at least setting aside doctrinal arguments for the sake of political cooperation, they have made their shared Christianity all the more important as a marker of common identity, which necessarily works against religious conservative candidates from other religions.

In other words, religious affiliation has become more prominent in electoral reporting as it has become more politically significant, because it now matters what church and what doctrines a candidate holds for the purposes of understanding voter mobilization, electoral results and certain dimensions of public policy debates. A generation or two before, it mattered less. Increasing religious diversity, political mobilization of religious voters and cultural transformation have made the religious identity of candidates relevant in a way that it has not been since before WWII when confessional lines mattered politically far more than they do now.

Banack then makes an odd, seemingly unrelated claim:

Second, this has legitimized sectarian religious criticism in general, which was then directed at VP candidate Sarah Palin in the general election.

To the extent that Palin was criticized because of her evangelical Christianity, Huckabee received just as much, if not more, criticism along these lines because of his previous role as a minister and his grassroots efforts at mobilizing his supporters through churches and their social networks. Many of Palin’s later defenders joined in the attack on Huckabee–perhaps Southern Baptists make a more appealing target for some conservatives than Pentecostals. This kind of criticism of Palin was not a result of anti-Mormon reaction against Romney, but came from an entirely different source, namely a hostility to conservative Christians in general.

Banack concludes:

My general point is simply a recognition that the election of 2008 showed that the religious conservative or theocon movement was, in the end, not political enough to bury its sectarian differences, and that as a result that movement is effectively at a political dead end.

It is debatable whether these differences have ever really been buried. It is more that they have been papered over, and for the most part they could be kept out of sight. This was mostly because, as a practical matter, there were not usually many non-Protestant candidates for President running in Republican primaries. Orrin Hatch in ’96 or Alan Keyes in ’96 and 2000 barely registered, and were not serious competitors, which made their religious identity irrelevant to the shape of the race. 2008 was just about the first time that there were major national Catholic Republican figures (Brownback and, technically, Giuliani) and a Mormon candidate and an evangelical candidate all in the same primary contest. Pre-Iowa sniping between Brownback and Huckabee supporters pointed to the limits of the alliance between Catholic and Protestant Republicans when both sides have presidential candidates who are “one of their own.” 48 years after Kennedy’s nomination in the other party, it remains the case that no Catholic has ever been at the top of a Republican presidential ticket, and the only Catholic named to a Republican ticket was Goldwater’s running mate. It would be rather bizarre if Republicans nominated a Mormon candidate before they nominated a Catholic, especially when there is much to be lost with the former and much to be gained with the latter.

It is not at all clear that 2008 shows that “theocons” are at a dead end politically, or at least they are no more at a dead end than they have been for the last eight years. What it might mean is that the overwhelming degree of support Mormon voters give to the GOP is never going to win them the sort of inclusion or acceptance that they think they should have. Then again, given the focus of the public policy debate at present on economics, it is possible that as culture war issues recede the religious identity of presidential candidates will become somewhat less important. Given his reputation for being relatively more moderate on culture war issues, Gov. John Huntsman of Utah could test that proposition with a 2012 run. If he were to run, it seems likely that Huntsman is destined to travel the same road as Romney and meet the same skepticism from social conservatives given his recent stated support for civil unions. Indeed, because Huntsman is going in the opposite direction that Romney went late in his term as governor on at least one issue (i.e., Huntsman is going against the views of his state electorate to adopt a position to their left), we might see Huntsman flame out even more quickly. Were Huntsman to run, he would certainly need culture war issues to matter less in the primaries, because he will also face anti-Mormon sentiment that is unlikely to have diminished that much when primary voting begins in three years’ time.