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.