Thanks to Mitt Romney’s candidacy, I suspect that the Mormons-as-bizarre-ridiculous-and-perhaps-dangerous theme will be increasingly with us in the months to come. There are two reasons for this: one parochial and one fundamental. The parochial reason goes to the nature of political news coverage. Overwhelmingly, political stories are presented as a horse race. The central question for the Romney candidacy will be whether or not he can survive in southern Republican primaries dominated by Evangelicals. Will the Christian Right vote for a Mormon? This will focus attention relentlessly on Mormon theology, which is the Evangelical bone of contention. Furthermore, it will largely be Mormon theology as seen through Evangelical eyes, since this is the version of Mormonism (rather than the version that Mormons themselves experience) that is relevant for the horse-race story. The results will not be pretty, but the train wreck will be essentially trivial.
The more fundamental reason goes to the status of Mormonism in American politics. Religion is hot in American politics right now. The secularization thesis turned out to be demographically mistaken — at least as to the United States — and elite culture was late in learning this important fact, pushing the sleeping giant of Evangelical Protestantism into political life during the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, Romney’s Mormonism may become one of the anvils on which the meaning of these facts gets hammered out. Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which religion in politics can be handled. Both of them present problems for Mormonism.
One approach is the solution of philosophical liberalism. In his book Political Liberalism, liberal philosopher John Rawls presented a vision of liberal society as a sphere created by the overlapping consensus of reasonable but incommensurable overarching belief systems. The basic idea is that reasonable disagreement about God, morality, and the like is simply a fact of life in modern society, but that on certain basic political issues these different beliefs converge. All reasonable Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Atheists can agree that limited government, the rule of law, free and fair elections, freedom of conscience, and a modestly redistributive state are desirable. This, says Rawls, is a enough. It is an intentionally thin vision of politics. This “political liberalism” (to use the philosophical name for Rawls’ position) has two problems in the current situation. First, the thin vision of politics requires we strip political discourse of appeals to our competing conceptions of the good the true and the beautiful. In other words, political God-talk is out. Second — and far more important for Mormons — is what might be thought of as the “anti-cult” provisio. The Rawlsian vision of political liberalism looks mighty inclusive; indeed if anything its inclusiveness looks debilitating. Yet it turns out that one can still be excluded from the polity on religious grounds. The overlapping consensus only cares about “reasonable” overarching belief systems. Those total kooks on the margins needn’t be worried about. The question is whether Mormonism gets counted as a reasonable belief system. Given the media’s current facination with the magic Mormon underwear and the persistant question of whether or not a Mormon can be allowed to become president, the answer to this question is far from a foregone conclusion.
The second way in which resurgent religion might be politically managed is by recapturing some sense of civic religion and republicanism. Rather than retreating into the thin politics of philosophical liberalism, we try to construct a public space that is overtly religious in some sense. This needn’t mean that we create a theocracy, but it does mean that there is some sense in which the religious beliefs of citizens become vocalized in public discussion and even that our rituals and institutions acknowledge some collective religiosity. This is a solution that has had some appeal to Mormons in the past, particularlly in the last half of the twentieth century. I am less certain now. In the 1950s, the implosion of liberal, main-line Christianity had not yet occurred, and that brand of Christianity continued to define the zeitgeist of civic religion. It was an odd historical moment. An American society recovering from the upheavals of the Great Depression and the Good War was, for a few moments, in love with a vision of peaceful, benign, middle-class patriarchy. The diffuse civil religion of America had not yet been decisively challenged by disestablishmentarianism and was relatively atheological, taking its doctrine from Frank Capra as much as anyone. The theological laxity let Mormons bask in the illusion that they had been admitted into Americaâ€™s de facto Protestant establishment. Abroad, America still enjoyed enormous goodwill in many parts of the world as the liberators who had defeated Nazism and Japanese imperialism, and the backlash against various nasty Cold War compromises had not yet set it. For a brief moment, Mormons found themselves in sync with the social zeitgeist of America, and for the first time since the 1850s elders sent forth from the mountains of Deseret were baptizing in large numbers, a huge wave of converts and exponential growth that would not begin slowing until the end of the century. It was a moment, however, that could not last. The civic religion of today strikes me as more theological, more aggressively Protestant, and less tolerant. In this universe, Mormons most definitely are not part of the religious establishment. Catholics are now allowed within the fold. Perhaps even politically conservative Jews when they can be found. Mormons, on the other hand, are not either politically or symbolically powerful enough that they need be courted for crassly political reasons, and are too theologically reprehensible for conservative Protestants and Catholics to accept. Indeed, I suspect that a civic religion that granted to Mormons insider status would be viewed as objectionable precisely for that reason in many circles. Furthermore, they are the circles that are most interested in creating a new civic religion.
I hope that I am wrong. Perhaps we are on the threshold of a reassertive and thin political liberalism in which Mormonism will be accepted as one of the incommensurable but reasonable belief systems that a citizen might have. Maybe there is a place for Mormonism in a new civic religion. Perhaps Romney is a politician with the atavistic appeal to play midwife to either of these transformations, and we will look back on this moment the way that Catholics see the election of 1960: The moment of admission to American citizenship. Or maybe Romney will self-destruct before New Hampshire and Mormonism will return to political obscurity. For now, however, I am pessimistic but not apocalyptically so. I don’t expect the second coming of Governor Boggs if for no other reason that the chances of Gordon B. Hinckley (or even Boyd K. Packer) delivering a new version of Sidney Rigdon’s Salt Sermon are zero. However, it is worth remembering that the first public reaction to Mormonism was not an angry call for extermination. Rather, it was the Dogberry Letters that appeared in the Palmyra Reflector printing pirated excerpts from the soon-to-be published Book of Mormon and treating Joe Smith and his followers as a good joke. A punch line is not persecuted, but he is also not quite a full citizen.