Politics versus Sectarianism

February 14, 2009 | 20 comments
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I recently finished The Theocons: Secular America Under Seige and put up a short post on it elsewhere. But as I continue to mull it over I have a different idea to float than I discussed in the other post, namely that the rejection of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate by religious conservatives in the Republican Party marks a triumph of sectarianism over politics that will undermine (or already has) the political influence of the theocons, to whatever extent you grant they have had influence.

To succeed in politics requires the ability to form coalitions with organized groups holding different opinions for the purpose of achieving common political goals. American political institutions do not reward parties or candidates who take ideological stands on narrow issues. The Theocons book relates the moderate success conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants (i.e., Evangelicals) have achieved while suppressing sectarian differences in the pursuit of conservative political objectives. There’s no reason that approach could not be extended to other religiously minded conservatives. But Romney’s candidacy in 2008 showed, I think, that did not happen. Sectarian differences overshadowed shared political goals and Romney’s candidacy faltered.

I’m not really interested in rehashing the Romney experience but in pondering the consequences for religious conservatives of the triumph of sectarianism over politics in this instance. First, let’s note that it was a rather surprising development. Romney could never quite surmout the label of “the Mormon candidate.” The religious affiliation of candidates is discussed in media coverage of candidates more now than a generation or two ago, but it has always been one issue among many, not a defining issue. For Romney it became a defining issue. It’s not clear to what extent the media controlled that framing or simply took cues from what readers were interested in reading, but clearly as a result the sectarian edge is sharper and more cutting now and going forward than it has been in the past.

Second, this has legitimized sectarian religious criticism in general, which was then directed at VP candidate Sarah Palin in the general election. One would think that Evangelicals and Catholics would learn from the Palin experience that sectarian criticism is a two-edged sword, leading to a renewed conviction to suppress overt sectarian rhetoric. But can you put this genie back in the bottle? I doubt it. Nevertheless, that is, I think, a necessary precondition for a successful 2012 candidacy by Romney or by any other conservative candidate that doesn’t pass the sectarian sniff test. It crosses the aisle as well — the media focus on the taking of communion by liberal Catholic politicians heightens the sectarian rhetoric and works against religious conservatives even when it is seemingly directed at liberal candidates.

Third, I think it has blunted the ability of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal, something it obviously needs to achieve in future elections. The subtitle to the Theocons book, “secular American under seige,” hardly rings true in 2009, when secular America seems in the ascendant. If religious conservatives have effectively tarnished their own brand (to use marketing terms), the most effective response by mainstream Republicans would be to move away from religious rhetoric and issues. In other words, the last thing the Republican Party needs is an Evangelical candidate in 2012.

No doubt others could offer more detailed political commentary. My general point is simply a recognition that the election of 2008 showed that the religious conservative or theocon movement was, in the end, not political enough to bury its sectarian differences, and that as a result that movement is effectively at a political dead end. People are now talking about banks and savings versus consumption and multipliers, not culture war issues. Politics is suddenly more secular. I’m inclined to think that’s good for Mormons and good for the country.

Note: Damon Linker, the author of Theocons, was kind enought to be a guest blogger at T&S in 2004 and write some very interesting posts. He presently writes a column at The New Republic.

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20 Responses to Politics versus Sectarianism

  1. MoJo on February 14, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    …it was a rather surprising development.

    No, it was not. If you think it was, it’s only because you don’t know the hearts and minds of evangelicals, which despise us with a single-minded purpose that is breathtaking and, at times, frightening.

  2. Wilfried on February 14, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Excellent post, Dave. Thanks for the insights.

    Just a reflection from “abroad”. As a Belgian, I come from a political environment with six or seven main parties along various preferences, none can ever obtain a majority alone. Coalition forming with several parties, negotiation and compromise are therefore the norm — not always easy and sometimes impossible. But it helps educate people that nuancing and cooperating are valuable in order to learn to live together. I recognize your phrase: “To succeed in politics requires the ability to form coalitions with organized groups holding different opinions for the purpose of achieving common political goals.” Extreme opinions and an unwillingness to adapt therefore exclude some parties from the process. It explains why e.g. the two main Belgian Catholic parties (a Walloon and a Flemish one) diluted certain viewpoints, reduced their “Catholic” image and were willing to vote in favor of abortion laws and SSM years ago. Political expediency, a sense of realism, or abjuring sacred principles? Will moderate conservative forces in the U.S. move in the same direction? It seems you’re right to indicate that “the most effective response by mainstream Republicans would be to move away from religious rhetoric and issues.” Will it happen?

    Most Belgians, and most Europeans, find the theocon movement in the U.S. strange, if not dangerous, by its apparent narrow focus on “sectarian” issues and the use of religion to further an agenda. The duality of two parties, with only one winner and loser, doesn’t square with their understanding of politics. The overall positive response abroad to Obama has probably also to do with the different perspective he projects in that respect.

  3. Ivan Wolfe on February 14, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    I think the post is misdirected, honestly, and gives Linker too much credit.

    The problem is not with the conservative side, it’s with the liberal side. The loudest complaints about Romney being LDS were not from the right, but from the left. Linker himself is the best example – he argued that a Mormon as president was a bad thing, because we would have a theocracy, with the prophet calling the shots.

    The problem isn’t with the sectarianism of the right or the passive-aggressive anti-Mormonism Huckabee showed on the campaign trail. The problem is with those such as Linker (at the New Republic) or Weisberg (at Slate) or Woodward (at Newsweek) or a dozen other liberal commentators I could name.

    The secular left hates us more than the religious right misunderstands us. The religious right, I think, could be totally cool with a President Romney. The secular left would have a stroke.

  4. Bill on February 14, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    He was governor in Massachusetts and the secular left didn’t have a stroke. They may have been a little disappointed at some of his “changes of heart” and the way that he began to badmouth the state around the country, but he certainly never governed as a crazy fundamentalist. His problem was that he misread the national mood, and tried to present himself as either someone he was not, or someone who had been hiding all this time, and came across as fake and insincere.

  5. MoJo on February 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    The religious right, I think, could be totally cool with a President Romney.

    Uh, no. They would rather eat their young, and that is a serious miscalculation Romney and his camp made.

  6. Wilfried on February 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Ivan (3), thanks for the comment, but if Linker himself “argued that a Mormon as president was a bad thing, because we would have a theocracy, with the prophet calling the shots”, would that reaction not be the consequence of how some in the religious right have profiled themselves all along? Or of how most Mormons in Utah have voiced their political agenda?

  7. Adam Greenwood on February 14, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Youre making a mountain (the collapse of religious conservatism, the collapse of the Republican party) out of a molehill (Romney’s failure), in my opinion.

    Linker has a bee in his bonnet but the criticisms I’ve seen from, e.g., Douthat, have been pretty persuasive.

  8. Adam Greenwood on February 14, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    but if Linker himself “argued that a Mormon as president was a bad thing, because we would have a theocracy, with the prophet calling the shots”, would that reaction not be the consequence of how some in the religious right have profiled themselves all along? Or of how most Mormons in Utah have voiced their political agenda?

    Possibly, but I think its more a consequence of Linker’s choice in bugaboos.

  9. Ivan Wolfe on February 14, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Wilfried –
    No and no. But I doubt I could convince you on this.

    MoJo –
    Sorry, but you’re wrong. The religious right would more likely elect Romney than eat their young. They may be divided on many things, but the anti-cannibal block is pretty strong and consistent.

  10. Mark D. on February 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    To the degree that some of the religious right reject candidates solely due to inconsequential theological differences they are not recognizably “conservative”, in the American sense at all.

    On the contrary they are a scourge to the classical liberal tradition that American conservatism represents. Such views should be considered a diseased infection, a blight on the body politic, and an instance of first order hypocrisy that is contrary to all that our forebears fought and died for.

  11. mlu on February 14, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    People are now talking about banks and savings versus consumption and multipliers, not culture war issues. Politics is suddenly more secular. I’m inclined to think that’s good for Mormons and good for the country.

    Maybe if we were all energetically engaged and organized by our great civic leader in building a great tower, that would be perfect for Mormonism and the country?

    I’ve been wondering lately whether, when the dust clears, the centuries-long experiment with secular government is going to end in abject failure. I think Lincoln got it right in thinking that America was the last best hope of the earth, and that if civic freedom failed here it failed everywhere.

    And I think the people who see, in our present crisis, a movement toward organizing secular society as a great slave empire, or at least a great serf empire, are also right.

    We have learned that grandma is quite sick and the medicine to help her is quite costly. What shall we do? Of course, we must calculate the value of her remaining years, and compare that to the cost of the medicine. Then our choice will be clear. Or I should say, “their” choice. Those who will decide such things for us.

    Do you have any money? asks the secularist.

    Meanwhile, we are opposed around the world by a group of religious fanatics who insist that God’s law must govern in every detail.

    It’s less clear to me today than a year ago whether it is we or they who are facing the steepest learning curve.

  12. Ben H on February 15, 2009 at 1:50 am

    I think you’re clearly right, David, that the right allowed sectarianism to get in the way of its political convictions and is paying for it now. I also kind of agree, though, that you are making too much of the failure of Romney’s campaign. There were lots of evangelicals who strongly supported Romney, and if either Huckabee or McCain had not been in the race, Romney would have won. This was not a straightforward judgment by a mostly unified party or even a substantial segment of a party that they would rather lose than have a Mormon president. It was just that there were enough people excited about a candidate who was proud of his religion that they took their eyes off the ball. I think partly Romney caught them off-guard, and they hadn’t had to make that choice before, so they didn’t have the focus. And partly Huckabee was just having too much fun running a successful campaign on a shoestring! It was as much a lack of focus and forethought and cohesion as anything, I think.

    One approach to this problem would be to try to go back to making religion marginal in politics. Another is to leave it in the foreground and find a better way to handle it–the way Romney approached it.

  13. kevinf on February 16, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    My take is that a minority of evangelical social conservatives supported Romney, but the majority did not, hence the Huckabee win in Iowa that put Romney on the defensive, and made religion an issue in the campaign. To that extent, Dave, I think you are right that religious conservatives are currently on the decline in terms of power in the GOP.

    Addressing the issue of whether or not liberals hated Romney more than religious conservatives, I think they saw that religion was dividing rather than uniting the GOP, and took advantage of that. It further marginalized the religious conservatives, and even the addition of Sarah Palin on the ticket as someone who passed all the litmus tests failed to really energize the party. Many of the leading conservative thinkers and writers were among the first to criticize her credentials in terms of foreign policy, experience, and her readiness to step in to the presidency in McCain’s place should something happen to him.

    In my opinion, the Republican Party will not bounce back quickly unless they find a way to really be more inclusive of moderates and Mormons. We can come to the party and vote with them, we just can’t be full fledged members yet.

  14. clark on February 16, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I think it too soon to say what influence religious people will have. So much depends upon who becomes a leader. While in the minority a lot depends upon the Senate and House leaders. But as we saw with Democrats a new nomination process can change everything. So I think everyone saying what the new Republican party is are being premature.

  15. Tricia Groe on February 16, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    As a conservative republican, former Arizona legislator, and recent convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Romney was never a choice for me. I did not find his voting record to reflect a solid grasp on the (limited) role of government.

  16. Ivan Wolfe on February 17, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I made a comment here yesterday, but it’s apparently stuck in moderation.

  17. kevinf on February 17, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Expanding on my comment in # 13 yesterday about religion being on the decline in importance, I think it was clear that Huckabee was not someone the party leaders thought was electable. Romeny and McCain seemed to represent the best hopes for the GOP in the election. Giuliani presented too many problems for the GOP and conservatives, and Huckabee had limited appeal. If Romney had won in Iowa, it would have changed the dynamics substantially, Huckabee’s candidacy raised the issue of religion more than Romney’s, in my opinion. Without Huckabee, Romney’s Mormonism was just an interesting sidenote, often compared with Kennedy’s Catholicism. Huckabee and his campaign really tried to make Romney’s religion appear weird and out of the mainstream, and played on the evangelical’s general dislike of all things Mormon.

    If you listen to the GOP leadership, the talk is more about returning to their “roots”, meaning limited government, tax cuts, and Reagan style leadership. You rarely hear the GOP talk about restructuring the party around abortion or gay marriage, the hot button topics of evangelicals. They’ve taken a page from Bill Clinton’s book: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

  18. Rameumptom on February 17, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I think the problem with Mitt was the evangelicals had an alternative. Had Mike Huckabee not been in the race, the evangelical conservatives would have rallied behind Mitt. Since they had their own dog in the race, many rallied behind Huckabee with the fear attack to try and overcome Mitt’s millions.

    Since these two were so busy fighting, it allowed the weaker candidate (McCain) to come up from behind and trounce them both.

  19. Mark D. on February 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Correction: That should be the 1856 Republican Party platform.

  20. MoJo on February 17, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    As a conservative republican, former Arizona legislator … Romney was never a choice for me. I did not find his voting record to reflect a solid grasp on the (limited) role of government.

    Agreed.

    I would’ve voted for Huckabee had he not played the religion card.