Evangelical Incivility

June 2, 2011 | 19 comments
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I am guessing many readers have already stumbled across a controversial opinion piece posted at Patheos last week, Warren Cole Smith’s “A Vote for Romney Is a Vote for the LDS Church.” Smith is the author of the book A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church, so it is clear where he is coming from. In fairness to Patheos, it should be noted that the article was part of an online symposium on faith and social conservatism offering a variety of viewpoints, including “Yes, Christians Can Vote for Mormons,” “In Defense of Mormons,” and Nate Oman’s “The LDS Church Walks a Tightrope on Public Policy.” Still, the Smith article rankles. Why?

It is not simply because of disagreement with the author’s opinion. I read a lot of articles that I disagree with but that don’t spur the sense that there is something deeply wrong with the article. After some reflection I have decided that is not the author’s opinion that is the problem (it seems fairly common among rank-and-file Evangelicals) but rather that the author thinks it is perfectly acceptable to publicly express that particular opinion. The problem isn’t Evangelical “political bigotry” — Evangelicals and any other group of voters can take their private opinions and biases to the voting booth. The problem is Evangelical incivility, the habit of openly broadcasting an unwillingness to vote for a Mormon candidate regardless of party or platform. [And I know it is only some, not all, Evangelicals who have that bias or who state it publicly.] To focus my objections, I will summarize my points under three simple assertions.

1. Some permissible private political opinions are not considered acceptable in public political discourse. The fact is that a lot of very strange opinions and ideas motivate individuals to vote for a particular candidate or issue in the voting booth. Welcome to democracy. There is no law against opinionated, uninformed, or even bigoted voting. Some voters may not vote for Mitt Romney because he is LDS, just as some may not have voted for President Obama in 2008 because he is African-American or for the Gore-Lieberman ticket because Joe Lieberman is Jewish. In the 21st century, however, most people realize how offensive it is to publicly justify their negative votes on the basis of a candidate’s race or religion. That holds with even more force for journalists, authors, and other media types who publish their opinions. But what exactly is it that is so wrong with publicly stating it is wrong to vote for a Mormon (or an African-American or a Jew)?

2. E pluribus unum: from many, one. That Latin phrase dates to the era of the Founders, being included on the Seal of the United States. Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet and you’ll see it displayed above the eagle’s wings. Originally, the phrase captured the hope that a unified nation would emerge from the union of diverse colonies and states. In modern times, the diversity or pluralism is largely racial, cultural, and religious, but the imperative for civil unity is still with us. That unity is most visible in times of crisis or war. Think of the wounded President Reagan being wheeled into surgery after being shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 and gamely quipping to the assembled doctors, “I hope you are all Republicans.” A doctor replied, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” That echoes Thomas Jefferson’s words from his 1801 inaugural address following the bitterly waged presidential campaign of 1800: “We are all republicans — we are all federalists.” We can have political differences, but we must retain a dedication to civil unity. While that sense of a need for civil unity is especially visible in times of crisis, it is always present.

This helps us identify what sort of public discourse crosses the line: it is public discourse that goes beyond the discussion of political differences and policy choices that ideally motivate voters and instead plays on racial, ethnic, and religious differences that potentially undermine civil unity. Even with our present polarized political system, anyone can be a Democrat or a Republican. That is in line with the concept that political diversity is not inconsistent with civic unity. But rhetoric and discourse that *is* inconsistent with civic unity — such as “You should never vote for a Mormon/Catholic/Jew/Muslim/Quaker” — goes too far. It provokes animosity that does not dissipate after an election. That’s what’s wrong with Warren Cole Smith’s article. It poisons the well we all drink from.

3. Romney can’t win in 2012. I think Mitt Romney would be a fine president. So would many other potential candidates who are, for one reason or another, unelectable. I simply take it as a political fact that, largely because of his LDS affiliation, Romney can’t win the Republican nomination and likely couldn’t win an election. [This probably holds for Jon Huntsman as well.] The presidential election is the only national election that we hold. The rules are different: many candidates who perform well in state elections for governor or senator and who have national name recognition find, often to their surprise, that they have no appeal to the rest of the country as a presidential candidate. There is no point in complaining if your favorite candidate doesn’t resonate with the fickle national electorate, that’s just presidential politics.

Some Mormons feel that this is deeply unfair, that Mormons have paid their civil dues over the years and now should be as acceptable as Methodists or Catholics or atheists when it comes to holding public office. My response is that Mormons are as acceptable for public office as any other ethnic or religious group … for every office except the Presidency, at least in 2012. But history is on our side. In 1928, Catholic Al Smith faced strong opposition from some Protestant voters who feared his allegiance would be split between the Pope and the Constitution. But John F. Kennedy’s Catholic ties were not a political problem for him in the 1960 election. Here’s what Kennedy said in a campaign speech addressing the religion question.

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.

Voters did not accept that proposition in 1928, but they did 32 years later in 1960. Romney’s Faith in America speech did not do the trick in 2008, but a similar plea might carry the day in 2040. A lot can change in 32 years.

19 Responses to Evangelical Incivility

  1. Tom O. on June 2, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Lieberman wasn’t the Democratic Party nominee for Vice President in 2008. Biden was (and is now the Vice President now). Lieberman was, of course, the Democratic VP nominee in 2000. Were you constructing some kind of hypothetical there?

  2. Robert on June 2, 2011 at 7:54 am

    “Romney can’t win in 2012.” MUST WE PERPETUATE THIS TROPE?! I get so annoyed when we (to our own detriment) believe and perpetuate the MSM’s mindless thumping.

    Here. Read this: http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/268616/romney-s-second-primary-act-interview

    Key takeaway:

    LOPEZ: You say you underestimated the anti-Mormon bigotry last time around. Is that a real problem for Romney? For Huntsman?

    HEWITT: No.

  3. Bob on June 2, 2011 at 8:41 am

    If Rommey can’t win, it is because he his Rommey__that that he is Mormon. The country voted for a Black man (who many thought was a Muslin), and he won. We now have a had Black, Quaker, JW, Catholic, etc. as President. I am sure a women, Jew, Mormon is possible.

  4. Last Lemming on June 2, 2011 at 8:41 am

    As long as the “permissible” private opinions are abroad in the electorate, I actually appreciate their public expression by the likes of Warren Cole Smith. Now, nobody can pretend that the bigotry is a figment of our collective imaginations. And Mormons are once again remindeded that the hand slapping us on the back after episodes like Prop 8 actually has a knife in it.

  5. Adam Greenwood on June 2, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I think folks should be more willing to express their religious views in the public square, not less. Civility is a very good personal standard but a bad club for attacking one’s enemies. The problem with Warren Cole Smith isn’t that he’s incivil. It’s that he’s wrong.

  6. Clark on June 2, 2011 at 10:27 am

    I have to second Bob. I had big hopes for Romney when he ran. But how he conducted himself just smacked of opportunism and not knowing how to communicate he was comfortable in his own skin. Honestly about the only thing Romney did well (IMO) was communicating his faith. I still think he’s electable – honestly who thought McCain had a chance last cycle? And the field this season is amazingly weak.

    Huntsman has a chance too although honestly I think he’s setting himself up more for 2016 than 2012.

    Mark my word. Most of those Evangelicals complaining right now would be voting for Huntsman or Romney against Obama. Honestly half of them have just as ridiculous views on Obama as Romney believing all sort of idiotic notions about secret anti-colonialist mindsets, secret muslim, or communist secularist in Christian clothing.

  7. Crick on June 2, 2011 at 11:01 am

    “Romney Can’t Win”…
    Mormons tend to have an inferiority complex when it comes to this issue. The fact is, Romney can win. He won a number of caucuses and primaries last time and Mormons have won statewide races just about everywhere. Right now the GOP establishment is having some fits as it begins to swallow the fact that Romney is their main guy, but his religion is way down the list of what they consider his liabilities. True, it wouldn’t be in Romney’s best interest if the South Carolina Primary was first instead of New Hampshire. But most GOP delegates in this country want someone who is winnable and who has paid their dues to the party. The guy who came in 2nd last time is usually the nominee the next time in the GOP. And while anything can happen, the odds makers are right to put Romney as the most likely to win the nomination at this point (Mark Halperin puts him 3-1 and nobody else is even close).

    I think the religion issue becomes even less important in the general election. True, their are counties in states like Texas where some voters will hold their nose, leave the Presidential race blank, or even vote for a 3rd party candidate before voting for a Mornon, but the state will still go Republican and turnout doesn’t matter in those states because Romney only needs to pick up the electoral votes.

    Both Romney and Obama’s fortunes are tied to the economy. Not anybody’s religion.

  8. Jax on June 2, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Romneycare is a bigger burden for Romney than being LDS. I personally have him 3rd on my want-to-win-the-nomination list behind two non-LDS candidates. I don’t care that he is LDS, his past policies say he has very little in common with me.

  9. Dave on June 2, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Tom O (#1), my bad — correction made. It was late.

    Robert (#2), doesn’t the fact that Hewitt admits he “underestimated the anti-Mormon bigotry” four years ago suggest he might be underestimating it again? Has anything really changed in four years? I like Hewitt a lot and I read his book on Romney. I agree with him that Romney (like some others) would be a fine president. But the key question is electability.

  10. chris on June 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Clark, quit being so dang honest.

  11. Jax on June 2, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I’m not sure how wrong many of our critics are. We do believe in continuing revelation, which means that God could change the ROE on us, and our behavior could change. If you believe that God has said all he is going to say (the Bible) then your actions are reliable. To evangelicals, our actions and decisions are hard to predict, and that makes them nervous. Also, we DO believe Christ and Satan are brothers. That is an accurate statement that they don’t like. It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal to me, but it is to them! and we can’t overstate its importance to evangelicals. I don’t think a staunch Mormon (Romney) can hold those to views and be found acceptable by evangelicals.

    He could still get the nomination because of the non-Evangelical voters and those who think his economic pluses out weight he minuses. If he does, there might be enough anti-Obama to get people to vote for him. A large part of the evangelical community thinks Obama might be a muslim. If they view it as an economically nightmarish, socially unacceptable Muslim vs. a economically viable, socially flip-floppy Mormon then he has a shot.

  12. Ken on June 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I think Mitt would make a fine president. If he is unelectable, I don’t think it’s because of prejudice from evangelicals or other anti-mormon bias. Rather, it’s because the republican party has gone so far off the deep end that he probably can’t win the party’s nomination. The current party pundits and powerbrokers will never forgive him for coming up with a really smart and compassionate health care plan in Mass. when he was governor.

  13. Bob on June 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    @ Ken: “.. he probably can’t win the party’s nomination (Romney)”.
    Well__SOMEONE is going to win it!

  14. Wraith of Blake on June 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    How times have changed. I cringed at Mitt’s “I’d double Gitmo” comment, etc., and could never have voted for him in 2008. (I sorta liked McCain but loved–I mean, looooved, Obama!) Now it turns out that Obama himself is keeping Gitmo, et al. Then Mitt suggested the US let GM work through Chapt. 11 and I was aghast, thinking he just sold out his birth state. Then the Obama administration (at least according to what a few pundits have written) pretty much did just that. (Btw your Prof. Oman’s take on that subject is here): http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/aug/10/the-hidden-cost-of-auto-bailouts/

    Long story short, both Obama and Mitt are looking a bit more centrist than I’d originally thought. (I’ll still vote for O. though.)

  15. Wraith of Blake on June 2, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    oops, “et al” above should be “etc”

  16. TexasVoter on June 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Has anyone considered that Romney is just plain BORING. Just watched the announcement and it put me to sleep!

  17. chris on June 3, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Wraith Blake – except of those two, Obama and Romney, one campaigned against doing something and proceeded to do the very thing he railed against his opponents for campaigning to actually do.

  18. Dan on June 3, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Still, the Smith article rankles. Why?

    Because the Constitution is awfully clear on this one thing. There shall be no religious test for anyone running for any office in this country.

    Romney’s Faith in America speech did not do the trick in 2008, but a similar plea might carry the day in 2040. A lot can change in 32 years.

    Aren’t we, like, supposed to be in the Millennium by then…or something… :)

  19. Dan on June 3, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    As for Romney winning or not, he will not win because no one believes what comes out of his mouth. One day he is “to the left of Ted Kennedy”. The next day he touts individual mandate and that abortions should be legal. The next day he says we should “double Guantanamo” and that he was completely wrong about abortions being legal, and that he didn’t mean an individual mandate for the nation. He’s been consistent about one thing through all of this: he hates France. He must have hated his mission there.

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