Friday, December 14, 2007

Mitt Romney and the Rise of Civil Religion

It’s been just over a week since Mitt Romney’s Big Speech, “Faith in America.” Meanwhile, the Baptist preacher is charging ahead in all the Republican polls. Perhaps we should think a little about religion and conservatism.

Romney’s speech was shrewd. There’s certainly been a lot of talk about the timing: announced on Monday, given on Thursday, means a whole week of media coverage, as the press first anticipates, then digests the speech. Note that he gave most of the week to anticipation.

What hasn’t been much noted is the audience to which it was pitched. The Speech was given in mid-afternoon, when no one but pundits was watching; are we to believe that he couldn’t have gotten cable airtime in the evening? The Speech was introduced, not by one of the many religious voices who have endorsed Romney but by former president Bush, the eminence grise of non-religious, socially moderate, mainline Republicanism.

And what was the content? The people to whom Romney needs to sell himself are socially conservative Christians. He could have talked about the issues they care about: abortion, gay marriage, school choice, prayer in schools, even patriotism. But these topics were conspicuously absent. Instead, he talked about tolerance, spewing out platitude after platitude on how we shouldn’t judge other people’s religion, how the president isn’t a pastor, how the Founders wanted a safe distance between religion and politics: because religion and politics are safe only when both are protected from the other. I find none of this in the least bit objectionable.

But who was his audience? This Speech was given not to socially conservative Christians but to the Press. And it worked. I don’t believe I have ever seen such bipartisan agreement, with the entire Press, conservative and liberal, standing up to pledge allegiance to Mitt Romney’s America. They loved it, he got lots of good press, and it’s provided a nice opening for the entire Press to attack Mike Huckabee’s mixture of faith and politics.

The Press’s reaction says a lot about the Press. Conservative and liberal alike, the media is nervous about religion. Let me share a couple of anecdotes. I have no idea if these experiences are truly representative; my point is not to comment on a particular person, but to give some idea of the possibilities.

I am a daily communicant in the Catholic Church, a family man, and almost a Ph.D. in theology. Last year I tested the waters for a career in the conservative press. I got an interview at one of the leading conservative magazines, in New York. They liked my credentials, my skills . . . but when we were finally face to face, they said that their magazine was no place for someone with a family or any interests outside of politics: the pay is bad, the work is furious, New York is hostile, etc. Now, the magazine’s managing editor, one of the people who interviewed me, writes music reviews, so I guess you can have some life outside politics; and I’m told that their national political reporter is a faithful Catholic and has kids, so I guess some families can make it work; but the fact remains that this Leading Journal is a pretty single, secular place.

(How it got to be that way would be an interesting story. The early leaders of conservative journalism, such as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, were known for their piety. Maybe the difference is that they were also known for their money: they could afford to be religious?)

I have had a little personal contact with the editor of a leading conservative website. She is a vocal defender of Catholic social issues, including at times Church teaching on contraception. She also loves to shop, and chit-chatted with me about “Fr. What-a-Waste,” an irreverent way of talking about priests you think are hot, like calling a nun Sister What-a-Babe.

Living on Capitol Hill in Washington, I sometimes see one of the conservative press’s leading voices on abortion. He and his wife arrive late, leave early, and chit-chat through the Mass, in cozy weekend blue jeans. (Somehow I can’t imagine Bill Buckley behaving that way: he’s famous for complaining, after the liturgical reforms, that the priest’s talking distracts him from his prayer.)

Now, I’m not trying to attack anyone personally. I don’t even know if my observations are accurate. It could be that the magazine’s staff breaks for the Angelus,or that the abortion writer and his wife run out to the car to pray a rosary in peace. I have no idea what these people are actually like.

Nonetheless, what I seem to have observed is a perfectly defensible phenomenon, known as civil religion. Civil religion means that God is important as a sort of vague defender of public order, and religious communities—whatever kooky stuff they might believe—are a good way to help hoi polloi stay in line. I have not the slightest doubt that these Catholic journalists believe what the Church teaches and stand up for “socially conservative” issues out of true conviction. What I’m saying is, you needn’t be exactly religious to do these things—at least not pious. Plenty of people ascribe to a religion because they appreciate its moral teachings, even if they aren’t all that concerned with things like prayer, or piety, or holiness. That is civil religion.

Mitt Romney’s speech was a beautiful example of civil religion. The point—and the point the Press, liberal and conservative, has eaten up—is that theology doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re a good person, committed to Moral Values. That’s great.

But it’s helped the press to cover up another issue: the symbolic importance of the presidency. Think of it negatively. Bill Clinton’s philandering was so objectionable not just because he lied under oath, or abused his power, or exposed himself to unnecessary risk, but because of what it said about America. A lot of Americans don’t want to think of their country—and don’t want other people to think of their country—as represented by a philanderer.

That’s one of the most important contributions of George W. Bush. He’s restored dignity to the office. He’s made some dumb decisions, and is paying for them in the opinion polls now, but for much of conservative America, he’s restored our confidence in our country, because he is manifestly a decent, God-fearing man. He is the kind of person we want setting the tone for our country.

The question at hand—and it is an open question—is whether a Mormon can do that. Mormonism is, perhaps, the perfect civil religion. The primary theological problem between traditional Christians and Mormons is that traditional Christianity believes in a transcendent Creator, while Mormons believe that God is a human who peoples the world with his children—indeed, the ultimate reward for the just is to become God of your own planet.

Mormonism replaces God with family, religion with community. It does a darned good job. Mormons are clean-living, decent people. Mitt Romney is a truly upstanding human being, without a skeleton in his closet. The question for conservatives is whether that’s all we want. Is it good enough to just be a good guy? Or is it also important to believe in God?

There might be policy implications. It’s hard to believe that the non-existence of a transcendent God would play no role in one’s worldview. Indeed, we might argue that Romney’s famous flip-flops are perfectly consistent with his beautiful family and his faith. Perhaps Mitt Romney’s heart is totally committed to looking upstanding. Raising five boys is heroic, but it’s not impossible to be a great family man just because it makes you look, or feel, upstanding. It might be the same motive that causes him to play to whatever audience is before him politically, committing himself to abortion in Massachusetts and a culture of life in Iowa. His success in business might be a function of an extraordinary commitment to success. And all of this would be consistent with a religion that has no transcendent source of morality, just a commitment to clean living. If Mitt Romney’s character and religion are built on nothing but looking upstanding, that could present some problems as President of the United States.

But even if there are no policy implications, the question at stake is whether conservatives want the figurehead of our culture to be the perfect image of civil religion. The East Coast press, conservative and liberal alike, certainly like that, because, for whatever reason, the press is filled with people who are interested in God only as the source of morality. But Christians in middle America should carefully consider whether they want a Mormon to be president.

That’s the significance of the Huckabee moment.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On the Public Nature of Parenting

Preface: In its heyday this blog had only two or three readers, which is one of the reasons I haven’t gotten around to writing for the last three months. Another reason is there’s been a lot of stress in my life: a job search, a personally difficult part-time job, preparing to teach my second college course, and of course that danged dissertation. But maybe it will do me well to let out a little of that stress through writing. So instead of just sending this to my two or three readers, I’ll make it a little more formal and put it up on the web. Here’s a reflection on another, more personal pain I’ve been dealing with. Maybe the blog will help me complain less and reflect more.

One of the first things that drew me to Catholicism was the anonymity of the Mass. I first started attending Mass regularly at a small-town parish in southern Minnesota, a long-ish walk from Carleton College, when I was a freshman there. I remember being so enchanted by the fact that many of the small town folks never took off their winter coats. It’s still a very romantic image for me. I was also attracted by the liturgy itself. I was a very arrogant young religion major, totally relativistic, and what really attracted me about the liturgy was that I thought there were things going on that I understood and the priest didn’t—or really, it didn’t matter whether I understood. I was just glad to know that the priest didn’t. The liturgy is just so much bigger than us.

St. Dominic’s was a relatively nice example of that fashion in mid-twentieth century church architecture that sort of imitates a gymnasium: huge concrete and wood walls, simple vaulted ceilings, not many images, and big flowing wall drapings. Somehow in that big empty space, the priest seemed so insignificant. I really sensed, even with my screwed up mentality and that ugly architecture, that the liturgy is much bigger than any of us. The priest is participating in something he did not make.

I think that’s what made the winter coats so important to me, too. The people looked like “huddled masses,” like strangers and sojourners—so different from the Evangelical and Quaker services I had known, where everyone makes themselves comfortable, and shakes hands and smiles at their neighbors. None of those are bad things, I guess, but what those winter coats communicated to me is that the Mass isn’t about us. We are entering into something we did not make, like immigrants in New York harbor.

This idea is still central to my spirituality. I feel that the Mass, and liturgy in general, is more intensely personal the less personal it is externally. The person beside me is kneeling, with head down: is she praying? Composing an email? Planning a party? Just daydreaming? I have no idea – and it doesn’t effect me. Nor does anyone else know what’s going on in me. The depersonalized nature of the liturgy leaves me totally alone with the Lord, face to face, head to head. Somehow, I feel more alone, more intensely one-on-one, in this public, liturgical context than when I am physically alone. Part of that is the sacramental order: Jesus comes to me, flesh and blood, in the Eucharist, so he is really present in a way he otherwise is not. But part of it is liturgical: the fact that other people are in the silence, in the alone-ness, intensifies my own solitude. Sometimes I like to take off my glasses during Mass and keep my eyes down the entire time (except the peace), just to intensify this sense of being perfectly, totally alone with Jesus.

But now I am a father. Parenthood means never being alone, always caring for another person. And yet that person is part of me. This is a very important doctrine in Aristotle and Thomas: the child is part of the parent, so that what touches the child touches the parent—even more intensely. Indeed, this is why parenthood is so emotional: when I am attacked, I can deal with it, but if someone touches my child . . . it is not just a matter of coming to the help of the defenseless. When someone threatens my child, he threatens me in a way infinitely more personal, more emotional than even a direct insult to myself.

And so I love to bring my children to Mass. Just as the public nature of the liturgy enhances my solitude, so, in a way, do my children. Nowadays I spend almost every minute at Mass caring for my three year old, usually in pretty mundane ways. This Sunday he was telling me about the nails in Jesus’s hands and the bodily presence of Jesus on the altar. That was a truly transcendent kind of meditation: seeing more deeply because I saw through my little boys eyes. But mostly, I draw kitty cats or race car, point out a bird in the stained glass window, listen to him tell me about his favorite book, just trying to keep him still.

But again, even this non-liturgical, other-focused activity is intensely personal, a deeper experience of the solitude of Mass, because the other is my child, my very self. Everything I do to help him preserve the silence draws me deeper into it—deeper, in some senses, than I could ever go on my own. Bringing my little boy to daily Mass is a whole new level of Eucharistic adoration, a devotion deeper than I have ever known before.

The great pain in my life lately has been a perceived assault on this solitude. About a month ago, a priest pulled me aside after Mass to say my child was disruptive. After a little cool-down, we talked for a long time and mostly smoothed things out, but he said things like “why do you bother?” His comments pierced through my solitude. A professor I do not know personally but respect from a distance, an old, apparently single woman, has taken to turning all the way around in her pew and glaring at us when we come to Mass at my university. Another old lady has done the same to my wife at Sunday Mass. This last week my pastor published an item in the bulletin that seemed to me—everyone now agrees that I overreacted—to suggest a minimal tolerance for the inevitable noise my children make. I expressed concern in a voice mail, and asked to talk to him; my tone was inappropriately harsh, as if someone had attacked my child. That Sunday he approached me after communion (he was not saying Mass), with my infant daughter in my arms, to tell me my concerns were “unreasonable,” that I was “just a complainer,” and that “there is nothing to talk about.” Piercing the solitude.

Perhaps even more hurtful, though, I feel intensely the suffering of my wife. She has received the same judging glares, heard about what the priests have said to me. She was even asked recently to leave the foyer of our university church because someone thought my daughter’s happy squeals were inappropriate.

Maybe they were.

Why is this so painful for me? Why do I react so strongly—overreact? Because the silence is broken. The solitude is broken. I loved being alone at Mass. I loved even more being alone with my child at Mass. But suddenly there is a spotlight shining on us. We are surrounded by judgment. Even our friends agree that we should be under judgment, that we need to “be mindful of others’ concerns.” That is a reasonable request, of course. What hurts is the fact of being always under judgment, every time I try to enter into the solitude of Mass. Everyone watching, listening, wondering whether I—nay, my child, who is more me than myself and yet utterly beyond the reach of my own will—whether I will transgress, whether I should be cast out, whether I am being “inconsiderate.” Normally, you can’t be inconsiderate without doing something. But with my children at Mass, my very being is under constant judgment. The solitude has been replaced with a spotlight.

I could leave the children at home. That’s the “practical” answer. But to go to Mass without my children is not only impractical (because someone has to babysit the children, so that my wife and I have to go to two Masses), but is to be less than fully present. I can escape the spotlight only by forsaking part of my self.

Of course, this is universally the case with parenthood. I was on a plane recently with a shrieking child. The whole plane was talking about him. The woman next to me pronounced that the child should be medicated, and the people across the aisle – parents of an older child themselves – announced that the child was spoiled. My heart withered.

Last night I took my children, three and one, to a bluegrass concert. Shifting my seat to the side so that my son could see past the people in front of us, I laid the chair down on my daughter’s foot. The music was loud enough that I didn’t hear her cry. The usher pointed it out. Then he—a crusty, middle-aged man, who sure didn’t look to me like a daddy—picked up my daughter and tried to comfort her. (That sure kept her screaming!) It took several moments to convince him that he should let me hold her. I am no longer clumsy—I am a bad parent, under judgment.

(Margaret was fine. She was wearing a heavy boot, and she stopped crying as soon as she came to Daddy.)

This is what it is to be a parent: to have your deepest self on constant display, under constant judgment, every time a little yelp escapes from your innocent child. Does my little boy talk because he is spoiled? Does my daughter squeal with glee, or cry, because I am a bad parent? These are hard enough questions around the family hearth. But the publicity of parenthood is almost too much to bear. To hold your dearest self in your arms is perfect joy. To have your dearest self under judgment is a terror like I’ve never known.

But all the worse at Mass, at that point of perfect solitude, and that perfect opportunity to share the solitude with my little boy. I have been told, from a thousand sides, that I cannot expect priests to preserve me from this judgment. I suppose it’s true. So I write not to ask for anything, but only to express my pain.