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.