Article VI Blog

"Religion, Politics, the Presidency: Commentary by a Mormon, an Evangelical, and an Orthodox Christian"

United States Constitution — Article VI:

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

  • A Response to Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion”

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 03:56 pm, June 28th 2012     &mdash      1 Comment »

    I cannot think of a time when I have read a book where I agreed with so much of what was said, and yet so viscerally disliked it than when I read New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion.“  While I have a couple of arguments with the book, I found the tone, and to a large extent the writing, simply disagreeable.  But to start things off, a brief summary of the book is in order.  Pastor Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, about whom Douthat has several complimentary things to say in the book, wrote a good synopsis at the Gospel Coalition blog, so I shall borrow:

    Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion attributes Christianity’s decline in the United States to:

    1. political polarization that has sucked churches into its vortex;
    2. the sexual revolution that has undermined the plausibility of Christian faith and practice for an entire generation;
    3. globalization that has made the exclusive claims of Christianity seem highly oppressive;
    4. materialism and consumerism that undermines commitment to anything higher than the self; and
    5. alienation of the cultural elites and culture-shaping institutions from Christianity.

    What, if anything, can we do about the decline of Christianity? This question has triggered an entire generation of books and blogs. Douthat’s book is mainly descriptive and critical. He even admits that the book was “written in a spirit of pessimism.” Yet he rightly responds that for any Christian, “pessimism should always be provisional.” So in his last chapter he very briefly proposes four factors that could lead to the “recovery of Christianity.”

    First, he speaks of the “postmodern opportunity.” The same relativism and rootlessness that has weakened the church is also proving exhausting rather than liberating to many in our society….

    Second, he notes the opposite impulse at work, the “Benedict option”—a new monasticism that does not seek engagement with culture but rather the formation of counter-cultural communities that “stand apart . . . and inspire by example rather than by engagement.”…

    Third, he cites “the next Christendom,” meaning the explosively growing Christian churches of the former Third World could evangelize the West….

    Finally, he proposes that “an age of diminished [economic] expectations”—along with the devastation of the sexual revolution and the exhaustion of postmodern rootlessness—could lead to the masses again looking to Christianity for hope and help. A church that could welcome them, he warns, would need three qualities. First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a “missionary encounter with Western culture.”

    Let’s start with my arguments…

    …with the book and then move to the impressions.  My arguments lie almost entirely in his chapter on political polarization.  On the one hand I agree, deeply, with the essential thesis of the chapter (page 273):

    In the Bush era, liberal consistently portrayed the right wing version of this temptation as a theocratic menace to American democracy.  But the real danger has less to do with the specter of an oppressive ecclesiastical dominance of politics – which was never a plausible fear in a religiously diverse society – than with the political corruption of religious witness.  The present danger to our democracy isn’t that Christianity has gained too much power and influence over our politics.  Rather it’s that the heresy of nationalism co-option of Christian faith has left the faith too weak to play the kind of positive rile it has often played in public life.

    But the descriptives of the problem and the specific examples he chooses seem designed more to be deliberately moderate than to be examples of where the church may have been co-opted by political aims.  Note how the paragraph quoted focuses on co-option coming from the right, ignoring the accommodations of the left to which he devoted an entire early chapter, though not a politically focused chapter.  He seems to have a special animus for George W. Bush, and while he never uses the word “cowboy,” his discussion of Bush seems to drip with the implication.  One is forced to wonder if Douthat’s political viewpoint is not based more in discussions with his NYTimes colleagues than it is in thinking through the issues, his Catholic faith in hand.  Douthat reserves special scorn for the Iraq war and for waterboarding.  He is dogmatic in his rejection of these policies without giving them the kind of scrutiny and consideration that the rest of his book calls for.  In other words, when he comes off his lofty perch and gets into the weeds, he is guilty of the very sins he seeks to condemn.

    To some extent, the second argument I have with him has been overtaken by events.  He neglects, almost entirely, the fact that conservative Christians have been pulled into the political arena kicking and screaming.  I think the church universal would like nothing more than to get out of the political game, but as government has been the proverbial camel with its nose in the tent of the Church’s business; the Church has had little option.  At the time the book was released the latest, and perhaps most brazen, of the government intrusions (Obama’s HHS ruling) had not come down, but the pattern was already well established.  Roe v Wade remains the most morally repugnant of such intrusions, but it is far less coercive on the church proper than much that has followed in its wake.  There is a limit to how much intrusion the church can accommodate before it must enter the fray or risk eviction from its own spheres.  To the extent that Douthat acknowledges this, and that once politics is engaged things will get soiled, he seems to neglect that reality when the discussion gets particular.  For Douthat, when it gets specific, there seems to be no battle lines, there is only negotiation and treaty.   One must wonder if the church can be preserved through such continual, if more peaceful, erosion.

    (more…)

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    You Spin Me Right Round…

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 03:00 am, June 27th 2012     &mdash      3 Comments »

    The last couple of days have brought us more spin on stories we already know.  SO the theme for this post must be the ’8o’s dance classic:

    Monday we looked at an LATimes review of a forthcoming book on Mormonism.  Well, USNews took a look at the book too:

    Mansfield spends much of the book explaining why Mormons have achieved the “stunning level of influence” they have today. In many ways, he writes, Mormons’ success in adulthood is tied to the two-year mission expected of them when they are young.

    “Stunning level of influence?!” – Sounds ominous does it not.  On Friday we looked at the LATimes Doyle McManus contention that the Mormon issue is dead.  McManus tried to double down on Monday.  One is tempted to think the success or failure of this book will be a measure of the McManus thesis; however, given how incredibly conspiratorial the book sounds from its promotion I am not sure that will be true.  I do not think most people will buy the “Mormons are out to take over the world” line; they will need something a bit more subtle.

    USAToday reports on a new poll out of BYU:

    Despite their excitement about Romney, many Mormons remain wary of the media, according to the Key Research/BYU survey.

    More than two-thirds of Utah Mormons said the Romney’s nomination will bring bad and good publicity for the LDS church. An identical percentage (68 percent) said they do not trust the media to cover the church fairly.

    Sometimes its nice to have data like this, but did we really need a poll to tell us that?  Frankly, can the press be trusted to report on any religion, even any conservative thought?

    If you consider irony funny (and I usually do, but in this instance it’s a bit scary) consider this from Jim Geraghty on Monday:

    Over at the New York Times, Charles Blow, the columnist who wrote to Mitt Romney, “stick that in your magic underwear” laments the Republican party’s culture of “bullying.”

    I am tempted to make a physics joke about “spinning” off an axis, but it would be too nerdy.

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    Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life…

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 03:00 am, June 25th 2012     &mdash      4 Comments »

    On Friday we looked at the coverage of the release of new Gallup data and concluded it’s not the numbers that matter but the spin.  You will recall that the poll said 18% of American would not vote for a Mormon.  At the time, The Columbus Dispatch had hat yet gotten its spin out, and you have to love it:

    Poll: 80 percent of Americans would support Mormon for president

    That just puts a song in my heart.

    It’s A Plot You Know

    Two stories emerged over the weekend that seem to want to make it appear that the Romney candidacy is part of a larger Mormon plot.  The first is a book review in the LATimes.  The piece is topped by a picture of the LDS temple in SLC and the state capital dome, rather ominously projecting that the steeple dominates the dome:

    Because I think there’s a bigger story than Mitt Romney, and that is Mormons reaching critical mass in American society. It’s what led Newsweek to call our current moment “the Mormon Moment.” Obama was a bigger story than the existence of a Christian left. Bush was a bigger story than the existence of evangelicals. But Romney is not a bigger story than the Mormons reaching critical mass.

    But it was the Financial Times that made it sound like an invasion:

    Mr Harkness’ enthusiasm is not unusual in Utah, where Mr Romney enjoys a 90 per cent approval rating. Though the state is solidly Republican, part of the special zeal or Mr Romney here is due to the fact that he shares a religion – Mormonism – with as many as 70 per cent of the state’s residents.

    The Romney campaign is planning to harness this energy by deploying an army of Utah supporters, like Mr Harkness, to states where the presidential race is close, such as neighbouring Nevada and Colorado. Such efforts could be crucial in battleground states that will decide the election.

    It’s not like every candidate in history hasn’t sent volunteers from states where he was strong to nearby states where he needed help or anything.  I know Bilderberger-based conspiracy theories with more credibility.  This would be laughable were it not so prejudicial.

    And Speaking of Prejudice…

    Did you know a reporter at Politico got suspended for his comments?  Here’s what he said:

    Politico, the Web site devoted to covering all facets of the political news cycle, said late on Thursday that it had suspended one of its White House reporters for making numerous disparaging and vulgar comments about Mitt Romney.

    The reporter, Joe Williams, had a history of describing Mr. Romney and other conservatives in provocative terms on his Twitter feed. And on Thursday, after Mr. Williams appeared on MSNBC and said that Mr. Romney only appeared comfortable around “white folks,” Politico said that it had taken action.

    Was Politico right to do this?  Absolutely! But here is what is wrong.  It was not until it got racial that he got suspended.  Think about the number of inflammatory things that have been said about Mormonism and Romney over the years (think Jacob Weisberg) and they are still running around with their jobs.  It appears there is even prejudice about prejudice.

    And it all this prejudice and prejudice about prejudice is on the left.  They don’t come more leftie than TPM, whose coverage of Romney’s address to Latino elected officials last week opened this way:

    Mitt Romney’s immigration address before Latino leaders on Thursday didn’t appease one important constituency lining up behind comprehensive immigration reform: evangelicals.

    No, no wedge driving there.  Sheesh.

    Finally…

    A book about religion and American history came to us in the mail recently.  We have not had time to read it yet, but Salon had time to interview the author.  Tell us what you think.

    Lowell adds . . .

    I did get a chance to read the Salon review (really more of an interview) and it made me want to read the book, “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America,” by Michael Meyerson, “a professor of law and a Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore.” I must note, however, the smile-inducing nature of the interview’s title:

    God is a weapon
    Presidential candidates have used religion to attack each other for centuries. An expert explains why — and how

    The article consists mainly of Professor Meyerson’s responses to the Salon writer’s questions and bears little relationship to its title. Oh, well.

    The interview itself is well worth a read. An example:


    Compared to the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, how would you describe the current discussion of religion in politics?

    In terms of the role of religion in government, what I’ve found is that much of the modern dialogue is trying to make the framers entirely one thing or another. You have those who want to argue for a strict separation of church and state, and those who believe that America is a Christian nation. The former go through history assuming a lot and use writings by Madison and Jefferson with a very narrow desire to say that government should not have anything to do with religion. The latter look at the large amount of religious reference and activity in the colonies and say that there is a long history of government being entwined with religion. What neither side does is take into account the validity of the history of the other side. What you end up reading are two half-histories, and generally neither political side has been willing to put the two different components together, which is what I tried to do in my book.

    But back to the theme of this blog: The Gallup poll data that John references above need perspective. (That’s something that could be rightly said about the entire religion discussion in the 2012 race). As the CNN article notes, almost in passing:

    “History shows that these types of attitudes in and of themselves are not an impediment to victory,” Newport wrote, citing a 1960 poll that found 21% of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified Catholic candidate for the presidency.

    Later that same year, John F. Kennedy won the White House.

    So in the end, we can always hope religion will have just as little impact on the outcome in 2012. But, but…in 1960 there was not a constant and open drumbeat from the Bill Mahers of that era, constantly ridiculing John Kennedy’s Catholicism. It would not have been allowed. This time, as we’ve noted recently here, the situation is different. We quoted Walter Russell Mead, who notes

    a depressing array of instances in which anti-religious smears against Latter-Day Saints have been voiced by prominent members of the fashionable left. Partisan writers who would normally condemn such bigotry if directed at Muslims or Jews have found themselves unable to resist deploying the same odious rhetoric when it suits their political prejudices.

    That’s the 2012 difference, and it’s one reason why this blog exists.

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    A Trip Through The Spin Cycle

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 06:26 am, June 22nd 2012     &mdash      1 Comment »

    So, new polling data out yesterday.  Politico had the straightest headline:

    Poll: 18% oppose Mormon candidate

    But when you get to the lede, well things turn slightly:

    The percentage of Americans who would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate because of his religion is the same today as it was in 1967 when George Romney ran for the White House, according to a new Gallup Poll on Thursday.

    Today, 18 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a Mormon hopeful, compared with 17 percent who responded similarly in 1967. George Romney ran for president in the 1968 election cycle.

    CNN echoed this spin.  This particular spin, that it is the same as when George Romney abortively ran, is an effort by the press to “prove” that they are not more focused on it than they were then.  It has become a common assertion that “no one talked about it when Mitt Romney’s father ran, but everybody does now.”  What this spin neglects is that while polling data may be similar, the press is not.  The press simply did not report on religious affiliation of candidates back then, and they certainly ddi not give Mormonism the proctological examination it has been treated to this and last cycle.  The Washington Post wonders if the number if “trouble” for RomneyJonathon Tobin @ Commentary sees and entirely different spin:

    However, the good news for Romney is that the number of those saying they will not vote for a Mormon has actually declined in the last year from 22 to 18 percent. Of course, that means the number is pretty much the same as it was in 1967, a sobering realization for those who might think religious prejudice is a thing of the past. But the decline may have more to do with support for the Republican candidate than anything else. Because there has probably been more Mormon-bashing in the mainstream media and popular culture in the last 12 months than in recent memory, for there to be a drop in anti-Mormon prejudice means rather than feeding bias, the Romney candidacy has put a dent in it. That bodes well for the GOP in the fall.

    If you want to do careful analysis, the 18% number has to be looked at in comparison to questions about anti-religion voting generally and corrected in a manner that will differentiate between anti-Mormon votes and simply anti-religious votes.

    But forget the number, the real take-away form this is that it is the spin that matters, not the number itself.  The number may have been the same when George Romney ran, but the chatter was entirely different.  This is an “all Americans”poll, not a “likely votes” and therefore the effect of the results is likely to be far less pronounce in the voting booth than it is in the poll data itself.  That is, unless Romney’s opposition can amplify the data, through press coverage and other chatter to make it matter.  Our response must be to chatter more loudly.  Consider the email I posted yesterday, then go and do likewise.

    The poll did result in an uptick of commentary,  FoxNews reprinted a blog post that discussed some interesting presidential religious comments from the past.  At the LATimes, Doyle McManus declares the issue dead.  I think that is overly optimistic, dying perhaps, but not dead.  But then McManus might want us to grow weary on watch.  Noam Scheiber @ TNR thinks the financial success of the Romney campaign is a Mormon plot:

    In Romney’s case, I’d say it was both the general culture of entrepreneurialism that Mormons are steeped in, and his own particular experience trying to save souls in France (possibly the least hospitable place on the planet for such an undertaking), that gave him such a leg up in his future salesmanship.

    And so while it’s no doubt true that Romney’s business background helped turn him into a remarkable fundraiser, it’s probably more accurate to say that Romney’s Mormonism made him more successful at both.

    So, Mr. McManus, dead?  I don’t think so.  The Scheiber piece is very well done.  It seems to say that Romney has earned his ability to raise money.  But when a large portion of his readers view business as antithetical to “real faith,” and another portion resents business success generally. it could be spun pretty negatively.  Moreover, it gets to say “Mormon” over and over and thus play on existing bias and amplifying the 18%.

    Finally, while there are grave arguments inside Catholicism, they seem to be pretty fed up with the shenanigans of the Obama administration:

    The U.S. Catholic Church, beginning on Thursday, will spend two weeks focusing attention on the issue of religious freedom. The “Fortnight for Freedom” will end, appropriately, on the Fourth of July. While it was planned long before, the Obama administration’s birth control mandate will now be a central focus of the event.

    The two weeks of prayer, study and public action will remember Christians who were persecuted for their faith, such as John Fisher, Thomas More, and Apostles Peter and Paul.

    [...]

    “Across America, our right to live out our faith is being threatened – from Washington’s forcing Catholic institutions to provide services that contradict their beliefs, to state governments’ prohibiting religious charities from serving the most vulnerable,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement Thursday.

    The Washington Post gives a bunch of statistics trying to spin that this will not matter all that much.  Some things do not come down to numbers.  This may be a Roman Catholic effort, but as more people hear about it more people are going to get ticked off.  The are lines in this nation.  Most people try and steer well clear of them in order to avoid unpleasantness.  But on this issue, Obama pushed too hard.  He is forcing people to take a stand in a place they would just as soon not.  They are not going to side with him because he has forced this discomfort upon them.

    American does not so much have rules as it does boundaries.  Rules can be broken, but crossing boundaries is an invasion.  We don;t take kindly to that.

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    A Very Good Sign

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 05:44 am, June 21st 2012     &mdash      1 Comment »

    Polls, interviews, ad wars – all of it are used to measure the progress of a campaign.  But there is one measure that the media can never quite get its hands on – chatter.  What are people saying to other people.  Someday when I do not have a living to earn I am going to look at press coverage of W’s Evangelicalism.  Everybody claims that it was so heavily discussed.  I do not remember near the press coverage of it that we have had and are having of Romney’s Mormonism.  But what I did get was a plethora, a truly enormous pile, of email from people, just friends and associates, telling me this or that about how W was “the real deal” as an Evangelical Christian.

    I got an email yesterday, just from a buddy, that made me smile.  It has obviously been passed around quite a bit.  See if you don’t smile:

    Top Ten Reasons Not To Like Mitt Romney
    1. Successful, self-made businessman. (Dad didn’t give him a hand-out… he and Ann had to make it on their own)
    2. Been married to ONE woman his entire life, and has been FAITHFUL to her. (Unlike John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Hermann Cain, all three Kennedys and practically every one else in politics!)
    3. No scandals or skeletons in his closet. (How boring is that?)
    4. Can’t speak in a fake southern black preacher voice when necessary.
    5. Knows the real meaning of giving service to his fellow man and quietly shows it in his everyday life.
    6. Has pots of money (made it all himself) and since nobody else in this country has any desire to have pots of money… we don’t like him!!!
    7. Has a family of great boys… none of them are in drug rehab.
    8. Doesn’t smoke (even in secret), drink alcohol, or do drugs (not even in college, where other people were NOT inhaling)
    9. Represents an America of “yesterday”, where people believed in God, went to Church, worked hard, and became a SUCCESS! (We can’t relate to such an anachronism!)
    10. Oh yes… he’s a MORMON. The religion that teaches its members to be clean-living, patriotic, fiscally conservative, charitable, self-reliant, honest, upright and MORAL!
    And one more point… pundits say because of his wealth, he can’t relate to ordinary Americans. I guess that’s because he made that money ALL BY HIMSELF… as opposed to marrying it (as in John Kerry) or inheriting it from Dad (as in Jack, Robert & Ted Kennedy.) We didn’t understand that actually working at a job and earning your own money made you unrelatable to Americans.

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    Obama Goes Full On Watergate

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 04:13 pm, June 20th 2012     &mdash      3 Comments »

    In yet another sign that we have on our hands the weakest president in history, President Obama today claimed “executive privilege” in a effort to forestall his Attorney General from being recommended for contempt of Congress charges.  Too bad it did not work.  Gosh this all has a familiar ring to it.

    Ok, this is a blog about religion and politics and I do not want to get too deep into what this all means in terms of legalities, branches of government, etc.  What I do want to do is point out what this says about the necessity of a well developed character in public office.  I don’t generally think much of political ads of the type you see here at left (“The Most Arrogant Man In The World”), but it did bring the whole character issue into focus for me.  Religion, with its understanding of higher powers helps very much to fight against the tendency for people to think too much of themselves.  That is, unless of course, the power of government and the power of religion combine – as they did when kings claimed their office by divine right.  This is one of the wonders of the American revolution.

    Which brings me to this Slate (yes, the Slate of Jacob Weisberg) about the effect that Romney’s faith will have on his presidency:

    Romney’s faith would inform a Romney presidency in two important ways: his decision making process and his capacity to show empathy for those who don’t share his immediate experience. Both men described Mormon prayer not as a reason-free appeal for the divine thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but a process that calls a person to a special kind of rigor and engagement with life’s choices, before they ever seek God’s guidance. New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who participated in the discussion and has written on Romney’s religion, pointed to the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that she said was cited repeatedly by Romney’s friends when discussing his decision making process. Guidance from God won’t come unless you think it through first: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind.”

    The second aspect of Romney’s faith that would inform his presidency is his time as a bishop in an LDS congregation in Massachusetts in the 1980s. In that role, the equivalent to a pastor, Romney counseled members of his ward about their most personal matters. ”The fact that Mitt was a Mormon bishop in a ward that had one of every conceivable type of human,” says Christensen, who has also served as a bishop. “He personally … met with them in their home and just had a very deep sense of what was going on in that family. That is another really important attribute. He feels it, whereas other people voted for legislation that took money from these people to give to those people. That’s not an understanding of humanity.”

    That shows how faith shapes us, without being “theocratic.”  “Theocracy” happens when someone simply thinks that whatever they think, regardless of how they have arrived at their conclusions or its affects on others, is in fact God’s will.  Another way to describe that would be “above accountability” – which brings us back to “executive privilege.”  The American experiment assumes God works in history – it must for all of history has shown that faith in God is really the only way to build a strong national character.  As we have discussed here often, religious political influence is indirect.

    I do not think our national character will stand for what we are seeing in the last few days.  God may work in history, but that does not mean that He has ordained Barack Obama as above the dictates of our constitution.  Whether it be the power grab of his immigration last Friday or this gross assertion of power that the presidency simply does not have, President Obama seems to apply his will to the nation as if his will was somehow divine.

    One other brief comment.  This assertion of executive power must be a cover-up of some sort.  One of the other things religion does is help us come to terms with our shortcomings, because it offers us hope to overcome them and the strength to bear their consequences.  Our national character admires people that face up to their mistakes and endeavors to make them right.  This administration is not giving us much to admire right now.

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