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Interpreting South Carolina

Why Do “True Believers” Hate Mormons So Much?

by ANDREW LEVINE

Before his 2008 campaign began, merely selling his soul – figuratively, of course – to the usual suspects hardly looked like it would be enough to put Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.  With dark skin, an African surname, and a middle name conjuring up memories of the most vilified character in recent American history, it looked like the only way he could get there would be to sell his soul to the Devil — literally.  Given the probabilities, a case could be made on abductive (inference to the best explanation) grounds that this is what he did.

But with theocrats on the rise everywhere, from Charleston, South Carolina to Kandahar, we are duty bound to resist drawing inferences that ascribe causal roles to supernatural powers.  Fortunately, for explaining how Obama got where he did, this isn’t hard to do:  public weariness after eight years of Bush-Cheney misrule and the uncanny ability of the Democrats’ standard bearer to turn himself into a Rorschach figure upon whom voters projected their hopes explain a great deal.  So do the shortcomings of Obama’s principal opponents – Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election.   And then there is McCain’s choice of a cartoon character, Sarah Palin, for a running mate.

This time around, though, if Obama gets Newt Gingrich for an opponent, the pact with the devil hypothesis will be all but impossible to counter, notwithstanding such unassailable truths as that neither souls nor the devil exist.  So much good fortune could hardly come from natural forces.

Most likely, it won’t come to that: the Republican establishment will spend enough to get their man Romney through.  Or, more likely, Gingrich will self-destruct.  But just in case Gingrich does bluster his way to the nomination, we owe it to ourselves to try to give a naturalistic explanation for Mitt Romney’s fall – and therefore Gingrich’s rise and Obama’s all but certain triumph in November — our best shot.

To that end, we might begin by depicting the South Carolina primary result as an anomaly, brought on by the unusually abysmal moral and intellectual level of palmetto state Republicans.  Could they really believe that the race should go to the bozo with the snarkiest zingers?  Or that Gingrich will be able to beat Obama – or anyone else not at the low normal end of the IQ range – the way he shellacked Romney?   Could they be dense enough to see Gingrich as a paragon of family values and defender of the sanctity of marriage?  Could they think that he is anything but a bloated Washington lobbyist and dimwitted blowhard?

It sure looks that way.  But even South Carolina Republicans aren’t completely in a fog.  If nothing else, they figured out that Romney is as phony as they come, and they despise him on that account.  That’s one thing they got right.

Many of them therefore fear that, in office, Romney would morph back into his Governor of Massachusetts persona.  Most likely, he would.  We Americans are not all South Carolina Republicans; to paraphrase the Commander-in-Chief, we’re better than that (though by how much remains to be seen).  And so, were it incumbent on Romney to address the interests of persons who still have the sense they were born with, he could well become “moderate” again.   Romney is a chameleon who can and has assumed many guises.  But, for all his opportunism, the man does have a core: his chameleon nature itself.

 

That thought has been enough to put many a Republican in an anything-but-Romney frame of mind since Day One of the current electoral season.  It should also be enough to make the rest of us fear a Romney presidency less than many liberals do.  Were Romney in charge, it would probably be no worse for the vast majority, OWS’s 99%, than it has been under Obama.  There would be some cosmetic changes, and they would be hard to stomach.  But Democrats would be more inclined than they now are to fight for the interests of the people on whose votes they depend, and they’d have no reason to cut the President endless slack.

 

Though he has given little reason to think so in the past three years, Obama would arguably be less aggressive than Romney in advancing the neoliberal, militaristic, and anti-civil libertarian agenda the ruling class set in motion during the Reagan years.  But he has been and likely would continue to be a lot better at implementing it than Romney or any other Republican  – because, like Bill Clinton before him, as a Democrat, he is better able to neutralize the opposition and even to bring it along.

Gingrich, on the other hand, is more awful than Romney by orders of magnitude, which is why, unless a majority of voters descend to the South Carolina Republican level, he wouldn’t begin to stand a chance in November.  This is also why it is tempting to see the devil at work in South Carolina last Saturday.  The only thing better for Obama would have been a Rick Santorum victory, but that prospect is so preposterous that even the Devil himself couldn’t pull it off.

* * *

Although a Romney presidency would likely be no worse than four more years of Obama doing his best to fulfill his end of his bargain with Wall Street, the Pentagon, AIPAC and the rest, the fact remains that Romney is by far the more despicable human being.  That he thinks others envy him for his wealth, and then goes on to deride a “politics of envy,” is the least of it.

This too has a good side, however.  Should the Occupy movement be in need of reinvigoration, a President Romney could be its salvation.  In at least this one respect, he is what he seems to be: a poster child for the untrammeled arrogance and cluelessness of the upper stratum of the one percent.  OWS never quite named Obama an enemy; with Romney in the White House, the battle lines would be more clearly drawn.

No doubt some Republicans hate Romney for good “populist” reasons, though, in truth, their politics is at least as pro-plutocratic as his.  But I would hazard that what really gets into the Republicans’ craw has very little to do with Romney’s politics or his character flaws; the problem, for most of them, is his Mormonism.

And so, of all the many reasons there are to despise the man, they fixate on the one that shouldn’t be a reason at all, at least not in the way they think.

Romney’s Mormonism was a problem four years ago too, when he first tried to win the Republican nomination.  His strategy for dealing with the issue since then has hardly changed, except marginally for the worse.  The strategy consists in buying into the evangelicals’ godly protestations, while claiming – correctly — that their complaints shouldn’t tarnish him.

According to the conventional wisdom, Romney’s December 6, 2007 speech at George H.W. Bush’s Presidential library was to have been his “Kennedy moment,” where he laid to rest the Mormon Question, much as Kennedy’s speech on September 12, 1960 before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is said to have removed the Catholic Question from our political life.  It didn’t work out that way.

In that much touted speech, Romney only mentioned Mormonism once, and he said nothing at all about its beliefs, many of which strike non-Mormons as ridiculous on their face.  [Examples are cited all over the Internet.]  Romney did nothing to counter that impression.  Instead, unlike Kennedy, who boldly defended secularism, he just used the occasion to preach about the importance of “faith perspectives” in politics, insisting that in this regard he – and his fellow Mormons — are of one mind with evangelical Protestants and right-wing Catholics. That’s the line he is taking still.

Perhaps he was wise not to try to defend the indefensible.  He was certainly spot on in declaring Mormonism no different from the rest.

To be sure, the Mormons are at the far end of the ridiculousness spectrum, but they have no monopoly on bizarre beliefs; and, in that department, their evangelical foes aren’t on a whole lot firmer ground.  But, then, all Christians, Muslims and Jews believe some whoppers.  Some do because they had ancestors who, centuries or millennia ago, were gullible enough to fall prey to snake oil salesmen, ancient versions of the Mormon’s Joseph Smith.  Most of them do because they are descended from converts who were made offers they couldn’t refuse.  Either way, in the ensuing centuries their ancestors made the snake oil their own – to such an extent that today religious affiliation has to do as much with identity as with belief.

Mormonism is a creature of the nineteenth century.  Mormons have therefore had ample time to forge an identity.  But they’ve not had nearly enough time to make their doctrines palatable to those who have not taken on a Mormon identification.  For general consumption, the Mormon brand of snake oil is still too pungent.  The types the others promote have aged longer and, in most cases, more gracefully. Mormon snake oil is too fresh by a millennium and a half.

But so what?  The weirdness of believers’ beliefs is of no political consequence; what is consequential is the fact of belief itself.  Usually, the consequences are trivial; identifying with a “faith tradition” can be harmless, if it is done just as a matter of form.  There are many reasons why someone, especially someone running for elective office in our time and place, might do that; none of them good, but most of them fairly benign.  The problem becomes acute only when the idea is to put the snake oil in control.  This is why Romney’s Mormonism, though no doubt sincere, is actually less worrisome than the full-blooded Christianity of most of his early rivals for the nomination.  Blessedly, all or them except Santorum have by now abandoned the race.

Despite some far-reaching adaptations to liberal realities, Catholic meddling in political affairs has never been entirely extinguished.  This is why Kennedy sought to lay to rest the notion that he would be the Vatican’s point man in Washington.  He was able to do so – not just to the Houston ministers’ satisfaction but to nearly everyone’s — because like most sensible, intelligent, educated believers, he wore his faith lightly.  Everyone understood this; everyone expected it.

But there was more going on there than met the eye.  Even five decades ago, the problem the pastors and their flocks had with Kennedy’s Catholicism had very little to do with Catholic beliefs or Vatican meddling.  No doubt, as one plumbs the depths of low church Protestant denominations, some vestigial post-Reformation anti-Catholic animosity can still be found.  But the bigger problem in the Bible Belt in 1960, and not only there, was old-fashioned American know-nothing nativism.

There had been a lot of that, decades earlier, directed against immigrants from Catholic Europe, but it was on the wane by the time of Kennedy’s speech.  In 1960, the immigrants the nativists used to hate – the Irish, the Italians, and various Slavic peoples – were already well assimilated.  So too were the Jews, the most venerable target of both Protestant and Catholic enmity.   But the news had yet to register in the political culture.  Kennedy therefore had to show not just that it was OK that he was Catholic but, more importantly, that it was OK that he was of Irish descent.  The Kennedy moment had more to do with welcoming Irish-Americans into national politics at the highest level than with fears that the Vatican and the White House would effectively merge.  The Irish were the vanguard.  Soon other assimilated immigrant groups followed.

These days, nativism is back, especially in Republican ranks.  But this time it is directed against immigrants from the global South, not Ireland or southern and eastern Europe.  The contemporary phenomenon pits Catholics  (along with others) against Catholics, and everybody against Muslims.  Romney’s speech four years ago, unlike Kennedy’s decades earlier, did nothing to counter know-nothingism.  Quite the contrary, the positions he has advanced during his candidacies, then and now, have tended to reinforce it.

But the process Kennedy advanced with respect to Catholics has continued apace – to such an extent that today’s evangelicals have little interest in the one Protestant still in the running, Ron Paul, but instead want one or another Roman Catholic, Santorum or Gingrich, to defend Christian America.  Even four years ago, when they could have gone big for one of their own, Mike Huckabee, few of them bothered.  In American politics if not theology, there no longer is a Catholic Question.

It isn’t just that tolerance has made great strides since the sixteenth century.  The change in attitudes towards Catholics has more to do with the fact that, with Islam on the rise and globalization bringing exotic eastern religions to our shores, the differences that brought on Europe’s wars of religion no longer seem significant.  Long ago and in a different context, David Hume famously remarked that “in Italy, an Englishman is a friend; in China, a European…And it may be,” he went on, “that if we were on the moon and encountered a human being there, we would love him as a human being (too).”  This is what we are witnessing today within the religious right, both Protestant and Catholic.  No matter how much those godly folk drag our politics rightward, they are aware at some level that they are fighting a rear-guard battle against cosmopolitanism and enlightenment.  A feeling of comradeship based on shared benightedness therefore overwhelms what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” the traditional engine of sectarian enmity.

It was different fifty years ago: then the “social conservative” bona fides of the Roman Church, or rather of the part of it that Santorum epitomizes, was not enough to overcome theological and historical differences; Catholics and Protestants were still too estranged from one another.  They no longer are.  But Mormon social conservative bona fides is beyond dispute too, and there is nothing about Mormons that would upset nativist sensibilities.  Why then do right-wing Protestant and Catholic true believers hate Mormons so much?

* * *

The short answer is that there is no good answer: evangelicals and Santorum-style Catholics are just being stupid for a change.

JFK had to contend with longstanding cultural and ethnic animosities born of real historical differences; Romney does not.  Mormons are as American as white bread and Jell-O salad.  And if, as some claim, what really went on in South Carolina was that Gingrich played the so-called race card, they ought to like Mitt Romney even more on that account.  He may not use code words or dog whistles to the extent that Gingrich does, but his “faith tradition,” unlike the one into which Gingrich converted, has a racist past that a South Carolina Republican should whole-heartedly embrace.

In its early days, the Mormons wouldn’t even allow blacks to join their Church, and it has only been since they got word of a new revelation in 1978 that they’ve permitted “anyone,” even African-Americans, into the Mormon priesthood.  To this day it remains Mormon doctrine that only whites are free from the curse of Cain.

The only rationale anti-Mormon evangelicals can plausibly advance for opposing the idea of a Mormon president is that, by their lights, Mormonism is not really Christian, a claim with which Mormons emphatically disagree.  It is worth recalling, however, that Protestants used to think that Catholics weren’t Christians either, though that has always been a rather difficult position to defend for anyone with the barest knowledge of history.  Leaving aside the plain Constitutional point that being Christian cannot rightfully be a condition for holding political office, theological considerations seem to have lost their grip over the evangelical mind when it comes to Roman Catholics; the soundness of their Christianity is either uncontested or deemed unimportant or both.  Why not Mormons as well?

Again, there is no good answer.  Mormon unreliability in pursuing the “values agenda” dear to the Christian Right can’t be the cause because Mormons are more reliable in that department than even right-wing Catholics, apart from the abortion question, where the entire Catholic Church, not just its most backward parts, are second to none in lining up on the wrong side.  And if all that mattered was following a reactionary social agenda, and otherwise maintaining patriarchal attitudes and institutions, one would expect evangelicals to seek out like-minded Muslims with whom they could make common cause.  A dozen hells will freeze over before that happens.

Theological affinities can’t be the cause either, no matter what evangelical leaders say.  In recent decades, thanks to the diligent courtship of the Israeli Right, many evangelicals have come to regard right-wing Zionists as their natural allies.  Partly for this reason, they have no problem supporting the political ambitions of right-wing Jews – Eric Cantor, for example.  Evidently, being spot on Christian isn’t quite as important a litmus test for evangelicals as some of their theologians contend.

When Kennedy addressed the ministers in Houston, the political culture was still resolutely secular.  Even the ministers were on board, as Kennedy intuited.  Everyone agreed that religion ought to be a matter of private conscience only, and of no political significance.  But times change.  Nowadays, in Republican circles, there is wide support for the idea that  “one nation under God” not be just an idle slogan but a governing principle.  They mean, of course, just the God of denominations they accept as Christian and perhaps also, by courtesy, the God of religious Zionists; all others, including the God to whom Mormons pray, need not apply.

By not doing what Kennedy did, but instead blathering on about the importance of faith in politics, Romney helped foster this way of thinking.  In doing so, he helped catapult one of the most grotesque figures in our political universe, Newt Gingrich, ahead of him in the delegate count.  How ironic is that!

*  *  *

It is difficult to feel compassion for Mitt Romney.  Still, when Gingrich trounced him in South Carolina, I couldn’t help but recall the scene in Mel Brooks’ movie, “Blazing Saddles,” where the Gene Wilder character, Jim, tries to console Cleavon Little’s Bart.  Brooks, playing Governor William J. Lepetomane, made Bart the first black sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge, at the urging of the wily Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman.  This was part of a scheme of Hedley’s to gain control of the land where Rock Ridge sits, so that the railroad would buy it and he would cash in.

The story line of the movie obviously has nothing to do with the South Carolina primary, though the exploitation of racist attitudes and capitalist machinations figure in both.  But Jim’s words to Bart, after his initial reception from the Rock Ridge town folk – all of whom, by the way, are named Johnson (in 1974, when the movie was made, memories of LBJ were still vivid) – somehow seemed apt.  Just substitute Romney for Bart, Mormon presidential candidates for black sheriffs, and Republican primary voters for “the common clay of the new West.”  Finally, imagine Gene Wilder’s masterful delivery.  It’s no more of a stretch than imagining a President Gingrich.

Consoling Bart, Jim asks:  “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’?  ‘Make yourself at home’?  ‘Marry my daughter’?  You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers.  These are people of the land.  The common clay of the new West.   You know…morons.”

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press