It goes without saying that this argument can and should be, I think, at least partially contested on every point: it is not necessarily obvious either exactly how America’s culture and society fits into Western civilization’s historical Christian identity or how affirming that identity will strengthen us; a presidential election is far from a plebiscitary affirmation (and would Daniel even want it to be?); and the Mormon teachings on “the apostasy” are a good deal more nuanced and in flux then might at first appear, anyway. ~Prof. Fox
Prof. Fox is a long-time reader of and friend to Eunomia, and I appreciate his thoughtful engagement with my post on anti-Mormonism, especially when that post may have been more than a little irritating to him and any other LDS readers I may have. First, an explanation about that post. The article I was responding to seemed to say: “You either object to Mormon candidates out of the democratic identitarian belief that your candidate should be like you in most or all respects, or you are a bigot.” This implies that, unless you take the “Christian majoritarian” or identitarian approach, you oppose a Mormon candidate because you actually hate Mormons. I believe this to be profoundly untrue for the vast majority of Christians who are averse to voting for a Mormon candidate, since I find it difficult to believe that many people could work themselves up into a hatred for Mormons (who are, as a general rule, the most unhateable people you are ever likely to meet), and so I wanted to explain just what it is about a Mormon candidate that concerns me rather than my usual shtick of explaining others’ reservations. Perhaps few will find my reasons convincing, but it seemed important to insist that there were a number of other arguments, some of them that I think are fairly reasonable, that went beyond the two options, “I prefer Christians” or “I despise Mormons.”
We live in a mass democracy. This is the unfortunate reality. I wish that it were not so, and that we had something much more like the Old Republic in which the mixed constitution of our ancestors provided slightly greater balance and sanity. A country this large should not be selecting its government this way, or rather there should be no central government for an entire country this large; it is doubtful that any polity can be this long without sinking into demagogic despotism (and some of us would say that it already has). But for the present, a working alternative is not on offer.
In this mass democracy, we make the election of Presidents into plebiscitary endorsements of what a certain candidate represents or at least what he claims to represent. The Electoral College, while still legally binding, slavishly follows the mass of voters in each state. Our debased, televised political culture makes the selection of a President absolutely into a plebiscite on the two charged symbols of the major candidates. Part of the flaw of mass democracy in a large nation-state of semi-literate, largely historically ignorant people with no interest in civic duties is that most voters will respond to candidates viscerally and emotionally, which inevitably makes the candidates into symbols to which voters ascribe meaning. I am, if you like, acknowledging this sorry state of affairs, of which I don’t really approve, and then arguing over what kind of symbols we should be endorsing given that our political system is a hulking mess.
Our method of choosing chief executives undoubtedly invests presidential candidates with far too much importance (just watch as all of us, myself included, get terribly involved in tracking the peregrinations of a dozen mediocrities you would not entrust with the most basic responsibilities of the neighbourhood watch or street cleaning to get a sense of how inappropriate our fixation on these candidates is). That does not change the reality that Americans will continue to invest such candidates with this excessive importance and will continue to attribute meaning to the victory of one or the other. Since this is the reality, and since we should strive to work in the real world, much as we may find many of its traits obnoxious and distressing, we ought to make the best of it.
In this case, it is something of a moot point whether or not I think the election of a Mormon President represents a vote of “no confidence” in Christian civilisation or, if you prefer, a vote that endorses the practical irrelevance of Christianity in this country, since no such President will be elected in the foreseeable future, but it seems to me to be an objection worth raising. I will continue.
Obviously, this kind of symbolic plebiscite is an inexact and often error-riddled process in which evangelicals could confidently rally behind a man like Mr. Bush, who could talk a good game about his faith and had a life story familiar to many who have had dramatic conversion experiences, even though the man was culturally, politically and socially alien to their world and worldview. Even though he had virtually no intention of doing anything for the causes to which they were devoted, these voters have loyally stuck by the man in no small part because he is “one of them,” which has helped Mr. Bush get away with all sorts of un-Christian mischief. (Most of this mischief overseas, I would note, is something Gov. Romney endorses and wants to see more of, so this is hardly helping his claims to be a defender of moral “values.”) So voting on the basis of such questions of identity is often not the smartest kind of voting with respect to getting the policies that this or that group of voters claims to want, but then it is precisely because of the secondary importance of policy in making these decisions that we wind up with identitarian voting in the first place. Thus, Christian voters can be satisfied with extremely superficial similarities and overlook the deeper divergences of belief and even “values” that lie beneath the surface; they can empower bad representatives and base their selection on a candidate’s claims to share their faith and values. However, this appears to be an inevitable characteristic of our mass democracy so long as a significant number of Americans remains fairly religious.
It is worth noting that this superficiality problem is also precisely the problem with Romney and his appeal to “shared values.” In the same breath he tells us, “My faith teaches me my values, but let’s not get hung up on any of the details of what that faith is, because my particular religion is actually irrelevant to the question.” Frankly, if Romney were truly confident that his religion was really fundamentally in agreement with Christianity on the essentials of these “values,” he would not have to engage in this double game. Like many a “values” dodge, be it the “Judeo-Christian” or “family” variety, the appeal to “shared values” presupposes that, for instance, people coming from a significantly different religious cultures and backgrounds will actually be able to acquire the same “values” that are nonetheless tied into and linked to a specifically religious source. This makes them eminently flexible and changeable while also retaining the sheen of immutable truth–but this is also obviously nonsense. It is first of all this assumption that differences of religious culture are irrelevant to the shaping of political and cultural “values” that seems quite questionable. If your religious culture and my religious culture appear to wind up producing the same generic “values,” the odds are that we haven’t come to agreement about these “values” because our religions are terribly similar (except in Romney’s lowest common denominator way) but because we have come to these “values” by another route and have convinced ourselves that our respective religions endorse these probably thoroughly secular “values.”
This usually involves a lot of backtracing of basically secular political ideas back to some putative or real religious source, which can somehow be done by people of any number of religious backgrounds, or it involves the attempt to pare back doctrine and worship to get to the bare bones of “values,” usually meaning morality. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find conservative-minded moral theologians who actually think that you can somehow abstract moral reasoning from within a religious tradition to get the “value” nuggets that you can then present to people from outside that tradition as generic and obviously desirable “values” on which everyone can agree. Even the claim that there is a natural law accessible to the reasoning of every person comes from within a religious tradition and hinges on any number of potentially contestable assumptions about the nature of reason and its relationship to revelation that remain unspoken or out of view. This is not a scandal for people who recognise the tradition-boundedness of all things, particularly all religious things, but it makes it difficult to believe that people from what are basically radically distinct religious traditions even use the same language and references when they discuss moral or other questions. In many cases, they do not. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to discuss them and even seek those areas where they may be in agreement, but it does mean that you cannot take for granted that people of various religious traditions all mean the same things when they speak in terms of generic “values.”
The “people of faith”/”person of faith” dodge signals to someone like me that the “values” under discussion are so nebulous as to be almost indiscernible. Take “marriage,” for instance. All kinds of people are “for” it in the abstract, which is fine, but we would be kidding ourselves if we claimed that different religions all value and understand marriage in the same way–that would require us to believe as well that they all understood the roles of men and women, among other things, in essentially the same way. It may be that some religions do have appreciably similar understandings of certain things, but that is a claim that has to be demonstrated. The appeal to “shared values” takes it as a given that no demonstration is necessary. In this view, what you mean by morality in your tradition is automatically what I mean by it in mine, but this isn’t true and, I would have to insist, can’t be true if either the teachings of your religion or mine have any significance and importance in the real world. Whatever we think of the other fellow’s religion, we would have to acknowledge that the teachings of our religion are meaningful and important for how we conduct ourselves–otherwise, what are we doing in this religion?
Presumably it is precisely the conservatives in each religion who are most confident that their doctrines and forms of worship are not mere frippery or there for the sake of elaborate decoration, but rather they assume that these things are at the heart of their religion and form the basis of their understanding of everything else pertaining to the religion. If, in the Orthodox context, for example, Orthodox doctrine and mystical theology pervade the liturgy, and liturgical action forms a key component of ethical action and if sacramental life and prayer are inextricable from the life of the virtues, it is impossible to conceive of talking about moral “values” as some sort of category that is anything but integrally linked to the teachings of the Church. Put bluntly, when I speak of justice as an Orthodox Christian, I am also indirectly confessing the Holy Trinity as the model of perfect interrelationship of persons. Someone’s doctrine of God is pertinent to how he, as a religious person, engages in moral reasoning and it is relevant to his understanding of reason itself, as Pope Benedict’s inclusion of Manuel II’s provocative quote in his Regensburg address suggested. If you do not have the same doctrine of God, let’s say, or do not have the same understanding of the Word Incarnate and His relationship to the Godhead, that will affect what you have to say about other matters. Conservatives have tended to shun theological reflection, which I regard as one of the great failures of modern conservatism, since this effectively cuts conservatives off from the living water that nurtures their entire intellectual and cultural history or its forces them to turn back to this source of cultural renewal only sparingly in the most sporadic and arbitrary ways. Yet it seems to me that it is only through a thorough reacquaintance with that theological inheritance that conservatives can once again make coherent arguments about the nature of society, human nature and political life that are not utterly dependent on false liberal assumptions. As a matter of cultural renewal, it also seems unlikely that any enduring Christian culture can be built up in the modern wasteland without drawing on the deep wells of patristic wisdom that we have at our disposal. To the extent that Christian conservatives are willing to chase after a superficially appealing non-Christian candidate out of nothing more than a mix of desperation and media hype, when that candidate is cut off from those sources and the tradition they represent, they commit themselves and this country to a path that is ultimately fruitless if the building up of a Christian culture is actually what Christian conservatives desire.
Going back again to Romney, he says that he is not a spokesman for his church, but as a public figure and someone trying to put on the mantle of religious conservative leader, that is exactly what he is trying to be, because he wants to get the credit for being a faithful member of his church without accepting any of the potential political ramifications of that membership. He wants to say that his faith and values are integrally linked, but not so integrally linked that anyone needs to consider what his faith is. Having wheeled his faith into view, he tells us we cannot look at it and that he is not speaking on behalf of his religion, when the core of his credibility, such as it is, as a man of good “values” is his religious faith. He just wants to avoid the inevitable complications that bringing his religion into public discourse has, while reaping the benefits of being a “person of faith.” Since a great many Christians take it for granted that Mormons are not Christians, how he links his faith and “values” becomes a pressing question that goes to heart of the entire matter.
All of this ought to be troubling to Christian conservatives, especially when they take it for granted (or at least I think they do) that the origins and underpinnings of their civilisation and the roots of American order are closely bound up with our Christian inheritance and are inexplicable without constantly referring back to that inheritance. This sometimes leads to pious absurdities where modern Christians bend over backwards to show that the fairly conventional religiosity of many of the Founding generation “proves” the Christian foundations of our polity, that is, the confederation of the United States, when this is a quite distinct and very different sort of claim from the claim of being a Christian people in culture, history and habits. Related to this assumption, then, would be an unwillingness to speak of “Western civilization’s historical Christian identity” and a desire to speak of Christian civilisation instead.
Prof. Fox is right to point to Mark Davis’ telling remark that “a candidate’s faith is of no consequence…unless it harbors the possibility of guiding his or her actions in a way I would disapprove of.” Even though I read things like this all the time in articles on this topic, I confess that I cannot quite understand such a statement. What can it mean to say that a candidate’s faith is “of no consequence”? At some level, if a candidate’s faith compels him to worship a radically different deity, surely that is consequential. How you understand and relate to God has a great deal to do with how you treat and relate to your fellow man; a distorted image of God will lead to flaws in your relationships with others. Mr. Davis’ statement is so all-encompassing that one might reasonably think that his disapproval might extend to actions including the worship of a radically different deity, but we can tell from the context of his article that he has absolutely no interest in such things. This statement is a roundabout way of saying, “I wouldn’t trust a potential jihadi, but a Mormon is pretty harmless.” Nonetheless, it is a remarkable statement for the extremely low opinion of faith it expresses. In this, I assume that Mr. Davis is highly unrepresentative of conservative voters.
Given the enthusiasm of plenty of movement activists for Romney, we can already see that some of these folks prefer chasing after the superficially satisfying “values” candidate rather than looking for someone representative of the broad Christian tradition. Whether or not many Christian conservative voters will be willing to make that same leap will tell us a great deal about just what it is these voters are interested in building.