Some guy in Utah thinks Evangelicals will still be a problem for Romney in 2012. It is not exactly a penetrating analysis and up until this week I would have been dismissive – but now I begin to wonder. We alluded to the issue on Friday, but further discussion makes it worthy of deeper examination.
A little background – Romney’s religion will not overtly be a problem from the right side of the aisle in 2012. Huckabee was too harshly chastised after he tried in Iowa last time for that to ever happen again. As an overt issue on the right it was abandoned by New Hampshire. Of course, on the left, all religion is an overt issue, but we are here concentrating on the primaries and specifically on Evangelicals.
However, chastising a prejudice does not necessarily eliminate it – it just forces it underground and into diferent guises. Last time the “Mormons lie” meme fed the “flip-flop” charge which made Romney “inauthentic.” We see the inauthenticity thing discussed a lot even now. In the last week, a new discussion has arisen that could also develop as a guise for anti-Mormon sentiment amongst Evangelicals.
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
To find the roots of American exceptionalism, you have to start at the beginning — or even before the beginning. They go back to our mother country. Historian Alan Macfarlane argues that England never had a peasantry in the way that other European countries did, or as extensive an established church, or as powerful a monarchy. English society thus had a more individualistic cast than the rest of Europe, which was centralized, hierarchical, and feudal by comparison.
It was, to simplify, the most individualistic elements of English society — basically, dissenting low-church Protestants — who came to the eastern seaboard of North America. And the most liberal fringe of English political thought, the anti-court “country” Whigs and republican theorists such as James Harrington, came to predominate here. All of this made America an outlier compared with England, which was an outlier compared with Europe. The U.S. was the spawn of English liberalism, fated to carry it out to its logical conclusion and become the most liberal polity ever known to man.
America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity. It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society. It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature. It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.” Even before the Revolution, America was the freest country on earth.
These endowments made it possible for the Americans to have a revolution with an extraordinary element of continuity. Tocqueville may have been exaggerating when he said that Americans were able to enjoy the benefits of a revolution without really having one, but he wasn’t far off the mark. The remnants of old Europe that did exist here — state-supported churches, primogeniture, etc. — were quickly wiped out. Americans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.
Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.
Good stuff this, so why is it problematic? Well, first of all, I have to guess (we do not have pre-publication copies) that Mitt Romney’s soon to be released book, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness, is going to – with a title like that – in some way address similar ideas. Secondly, our nation holds a very special place in Mormon thought, philosophy, and even theology. Finally, since Lowry and Ponnuru’s piece, a number of leading Evangelical bloggers have been pointing out that American Exceptionalism is not a “Christian” ideal.
I am occasionally asked by folks how to help young evangelicals understand and sympathize with conservative political ideology.
Here’s a hint:
Ponnuru and Lowry’s piece is a tremendous example of the sort of one-eyed shut conservatism that has disenchanted many of my peers. Their’s is a defense of the American creed, which they describe as a blend of “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.”
But the most serious problem is conceptual. Lowry and Ponnuru don’t distinguish between two ideas, one of which can be called American exceptionalism, the other American exclusivism.
American exceptionalism is objectionable because it is a false religion, a false faith. It is a smooth and attractive idol, and probably the idol most likely to ensnare conservative evangelicals.
Boy there is a lot of semantics going on here – and a lot of semantic territoriality. That is troubling, we are so busy arguing words and their meanings, and who gets to decide their meanings, that we are losing the central idea. This is very reflective of the common debate, theologically, between Evangelicals and Mormons. Given that, one has to wonder if this debate will not continue in force when Romney’s book is in general release in a couple of weeks.
It is important in these types of situations to focus on the central ideas on which we can all agree, so that is what I am going to do here. First of all, everyone understands that we can hold our nation in front of our God and that such is idolatrous. The Mormons I know, even with their deep faith in the special place America has in history as ordained by God, know that America is NOT God. Any person of faith must guard against idolatry of all sorts, and this sort is no exception.
So what are the essential ideas that we can focus on and can agree upon? Well, first of all, it cannot be denied that the Unites States of America is the most successful nation-state in history. We have grown faster and larger than any other. It cannot be denied that while imperfect, we have done more good for our citizenry and the world than any prior nation-state. It is also inarguable that the varied religious nature of our citizenry is, to some extent, responsible for that latter fact.
It also cannot be denied that religion, and especially Christianity, has flourished in American like no place else on earth – and like no other religion in history – as matter of choice and free practice.
For Evangelicals, and those like us, who believe that God acts in history, we must conclude that God, to some extent, has ordained this special place in history that America has obtained. This is a matter of reason. It is fair for Evangelicals to say that American Exceptionalism is not biblical (and here the different canons of Orthodox and Mormon Christians is very important), but to say it is ungodly is to deny history and that God acts in it. We can no more deny the exceptional nature of this nation than we can deny that the earth rotates around the sun (but then we did try to do that for a while as well.)
So argue the precise formulations of the statements if you will, but let us not lose focus on what really matters. America is unique in history. It will not last forever, but it is destined to have influence far beyond its existence. Only Israel and the Roman Empire can claim the kind of historical significance that the United States is likely to claim when it is all said and done. That uniqueness is worthy of our defense, and it is defending it that should unite us.