I just started reading the recently published Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, by Kevin M. Schultz (OUP, 2011). With Mitt Romney’s Mormon-ness continuing to be an oddly fascinating topic for the mainstream media, a point of criticism and ridicule for journalist comedians (they think they are journalists, I think they are comedians), and a strategic weakness to be exploited by Rick Perry and possibly other candidates, Tri-Faith America seems like a very timely book.
That Was Then …
The book focuses on the two decades after World War II, a period that was preceded by conflict between labor and capital and that was followed by conflict over race and civil rights. The turbulence of the Sixties and the polarized politics of the last couple of decades largely obscures historical memory of the ethic of religious harmony that prevailed in the postwar period. The book gives readers a way to recover this important chapter in American religious history.
Here’s how the book sets up the beginning of the move from America as a Protestant nation to America as a tri-faith nation:
In 1934, Everett R. Clinchy, a thirty-seven-year-old Presbyterian minister, published a short book with a red cover called All in the Name of God. America was not a Protestant nation, Clinchy declared in the book. Instead, it was a nation composed of three equal “culture groups” — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. Each group had its own unique “way of living,” had its own “folkways,” and thought its way of living was superior to the others. But Clinchy contended that in order to survive in the face of the totalitarian demagogues emerging worldwide in the 1920s and 1930s, to beat back the prejudices on which they were capitalizing, to allow the United States to live up to its most cherished ideals, no group could be allowed to proclaim its superiority in American civic life. At a civic and social level, the three groups were equal. There could be no Protestant hegemony in America. (p. 15.)
As recounted in the book, the gradual displacement of the idea of America as a Protestant nation by the idea of America as a tri-faith nation took a few decades to occur but was largely successful. In the context of its time, that was a progressive change that broadened participation in American civic life to include groups (Catholics, Jews) that had previously been marginalized. The civil rights movement of the sixties carried that change forward to bring full civil rights to previously marginalized racial and ethnic minorities as well.
… This Is Now
But religion in America didn’t stand still. In the closing third of the 20th century, new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East broadened the American religious spectrum to include Buddhists and Muslims. New age religions sprang to prominence as well, including Neo-Paganism, Wicca, and self-congratulatory Brights. And Mormons are in the mix, too, emerging from relative seclusion in the Mountain Time Zone to claim a place in national life. Where do these new religious voices fit in the tri-faith or Judeo-Christian model of harmonious American religious and cultural life that emerged in the postwar period? More to the point in light of current events, do Mormons get a seat at the table?
That’s a question we probably wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t for the presence of Romney and Huntsman in the 2012 presidential race. Politics often brings out the worst in people, so it is unfortunate that this discussion happens in the context of a presidential campaign. When it came up in the 1960 campaign and the question was whether John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a presidential disqualifier, here was his response (as quoted at p. 6):
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote. … I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.
That speech largely resolved the Catholic issue for the campaign, and after Kennedy’s election the issue never returned. Romney’s 2007 “Faith in America” speech obviously did not resolve the Mormon issue, but 2011 is not 1960 and Romney is not Kennedy. As noted above, the religious spectrum is now broader. Mormonism is not Catholicism. The year 1960 was at the close of the religiously inclusive tri-faith period, whereas 2011 is part of an era where politics is polarized along many axes, including religion. The media itself is much broader than in 1960, with extremists at both ends of the spectrum now able to find large audiences through online publications and forums.
So Where Are We Now?
Recalcitrant Protestants who opposed the inclusion of Catholics and Jews into American national life were unsuccessful in opposing the tri-faith movement. Will they now be successful in opposing the inclusion of those outside of the tri-faith club? I think that is an open question at this point. As Kennedy’s election in 1960 resolved the Catholic issue, Romney’s candidacy in 2012 may resolve the Mormon issue, but the message could be “not yet” rather than “come on in.”
A related question that I have not seen discussed is whether “playing the Mormon card” (or any other religious card) is itself a presidential disqualifier. If there’s one thing a presidential candidate has to project at some point, it is inclusion. “Looking presidential” is part of the test every candidate faces, but exploiting religious differences for political gain is decidedly unpresidential. I would hope that it eventually becomes so unpresidential that candidates simply avoid it.