Thursday, February 15, 2007

Romney and the (Paleo?)(Theo?)Conservative Test

Once again, nearly a month without any blogging. And as usual, in that time I've piled up a half-dozen lengthy, partially written posts that may or may not ever see the light of day (I think I've finally learned not to promise anything on this blog). As for reasons for this delay, the best I can do is blame the weather: my sunny comments about adjusting to life and winters in Kansas from back in December have been, shall we say, harshly challenged over the last month or so. No, we're not buried under 10ft. of snow; this isn't upper-state New York. But we've had much more snow and ice and sleet than apparently is typical for south-central Kansas, and the temperatures have been--again, when compared against what's typical--bitter. (I tried to ride my bike to work last week, having become tired of bumming rides off others; I was about halfway to the campus, when I noticed a sign announcing it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit out, and brother, did I feel it. I thought my nether regions were going to have frostbite for sure.) Anyway, not that any of that's a decent excuse; it's not like I blog outside. But it has made for some pretty gray, sluggish, slow days. Here's to hoping spring will come soon, and I'll have the energy to actually get some of those backed-up posts finished.

My friend and frequent antagonist Damon Linker called my attention to this post by Daniel Larison; I read his blog regularly (and everyone should; I mean, really, where else can you go these days to find serious vituperation for the Whigs?), but this one had slipped by me. Daniel has long since made it clear he has no love for Romney as a candidate for social conservatives like himself, and he's written a great deal about Romney's gaffes and the obstacles he faces in the primaries. But in this post he goes a little deeper into thinking about his own and other conservatives' concerns about not just Romney, but also Mormonism in general. I've already written (at too great of length, as usual) everything that, at this point, I think is interesting and worth saying about what it means to have a Mormon running for the highest office in the country, but Daniel's summary does prompt me to make one more comment. What catches my eye comes towards the end of his post; after he's allowed that some social conservatives are straightforward "Christian majoritarians" who just want one of their own as president, particular beliefs be damned, and that others are concerned about the perceived "weirdness" of Mormonism, either because of a general discomfort with my religion or because of ignorant and conspiratorial suspicions about it, he ends by writing:

For a few voters, and I would class myself among these, the non-Christian character of Mormonism troubles us, and its tremendous theological divergences from what some call the Great Tradition of Christianity mark it as a false religion fundamentally removed in important ways from the religion that has been the core of our civilisation. For cultural conservatives for whom that Christian heritage is extremely important, it would be quite unhelpful and even damaging to the work of preserving and renewing a Christian culture to rally around a candidate for the most prominent office in the country who does not really believe in that heritage....If we are in a civilisational conflict, electing a Mormon President is a strange sort of vote of no-confidence in our own history and a repudiation of most of the heritage that at least some of us believe we are fighting to protect (from enemies here and abroad).

Now, if you step inside of Daniel's reactionary, paleoconservative worldview, then this kind of argument makes a fair amount of sense. Break it down this way: America and the West needs to affirm its historical Christian identity in order to fight its enemies and recover its virtue; electing a president is a form of affirmation; the Mormon doctrine of a Christian apostasy and a latter-day restoration of true teachings and authority means Mormonism simply doesn't connect with that historical Christian identity in any way whatsoever; therefore, electing a Mormon to the presidency will be a vote of "no confidence" in the face of threats from our civilization's enemies. It goes without saying that this argument can and should be, I think, at least partially contested on every point: it is not necessarily obvious either exactly how America's culture and society fits into Western civilization's historical Christian identity or how affirming that identity will strengthen us; a presidential election is far from a plebiscitary affirmation (and would Daniel even want it to be?); and the Mormon teachings on "the apostasy" are a good deal more nuanced and in flux then might at first appear, anyway. Still, accept the basic assumptions, and the conclusion follows.

What I find interesting here is that, given the solidness of at least this sliver of Daniel's case for the legitimacy of anti-Mormon feeling on the part of some social conservatives, Mitt Romney's candidacy can be taken as a kind of test of the sorts of commitments which socially conservative Christians embrace. Look around the some of the Christian blogs that support Mitt Romney, and what you'll see over and over again is the refrain that, as Mark Davis put it, "
a candidate's faith is of no consequence...unless it harbors the possibility of guiding his or her actions in a way I would disapprove of." Romney himself keeps emphasizing that he's not worried about Christian support, because he believes he'll be able to show those primary voters that his Mormon beliefs are sufficiently Christian to reliably guide him to the same socially conservative Christian actions regarding abortion and same-sex marriage. He may be right. And if he's right, that means the influence of Daniel's camp over social conservatives generally is...well, pretty small.

This wouldn't surprise Daniel; he knows that the number of true Christian civilization reactionaries out there is vanishingly small. But what that might also tell him, and what others ought to notice, is that such a result would also prove that the deep, theocratic and civilizational aspirations which sometimes appears to animate social conservative thinkers, and which is the subject of constant exposure and condemnation by their opponents, isn't at all strong enough to get in the way of the desire on the part of people who hold these views to get someone sympathetic elected. No duh, you might say; it's always all about winning, right? Usually it is. But if it's all about winning, it can't be equally about transforming the culture, about challenging America's mores and building a new (old?) civilization, can it? This is part of what under girds may own very poor opinion of the theocons, despite my occasional agreements with them and my dislike for some of the common attacks upon them: I think they, or at least some of the leading lights among them, like to understand themselves as engaged in some heavy and meaningful cultural warfare, and they encourage talking points derived from such to spread amongst the rank and file. Yet they do not themselves often act as if they are truly engaged in such transformation and building; instead, they mostly act like an interest group, looking to use and spread their influence within the liberal order itself. And what, really, is the point of pretending to be an oppressed Christian malcontent within a civilization supposedly under attack from within and without, if one is perfectly happy to support a Mormon candidate, with Mormonism arguably being one of the most thoroughly American religions imaginable?

To reiterate: this isn't a question for me, since I have my own opinions about the political meaning of my faith, and they aren't tied up in the political success of a moderate, corporate Republican governor from Massachusetts. (To say nothing of the fact that I disagree with or at least would want to qualify most of the common Christian assumptions about my religion implied above anyway.) Nor is it a question for those masses of generally and genially conservative Christians who vote Republican simply because there are various moral issues they're unhappy with, but otherwise are perfectly ordinary, patriotic, modern and therefore philosophically liberal Americans. But it is a question, and a challenge, for those supposedly more doctrinally and historically and culturally motivated conservatives, those kind of conservatives that I, in my odd leftist way, kind of perversely admire. Romney's success as a candidate is not only, as many of us Mormons wonder, a kind of test to see how we fit into the American mainstream; it is also a test for those conservatives whose religious commitment (or just public relations strategy) lead them to insist that they are in fact charting a new (old?) and righteous path upstream, swimming and nominating candidates against the tide. My bet? Most of them (though surely not Daniel) will fail it.

8 comments:

Camassia said...

I would add that the "great apostasy" idea actually has currency among a lot of American low churches -- many evangelicals today seem to basically ignore the 1,900+ years of post-Apostolic tradition that Daniel mentions. And since we had Unitarian presidents in the first few decades of the Republic, it seems a bit late to be worrying about having heretics in the White House.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Camassia, that's an excellent point--one that I wish I'd included in my post! Obviously the Unitarians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were much more connected to the Christian tradition than the Unitarians of today, but still, the fundamentals of the Unitarian faith, while nominally more "mainstream" or orthodox that Mormonism, is in practice certainly about as far from orthodoxy as any Christian can probably be. Hence, if the sort of conservative complaints which Larison identifies are to be taken seriously, then one must assume they've been complaining about American presidents pretty much from the beginning.

Barry said...

Comassia, those unitarians have been retroactively turned into evangelicals.

Rusell, in terms of people's actions not living up to their words of epic struggle, please note that that is how the administration waged the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only not acting as if they were wars for national survival, but also not even acting as if they were real wars which would need some real fighting, instead of airstrikes=>parades.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand. You *agree* with Larison? That is, you think its hypocritical for social conservatives to vote for someone who isn't an orthodox, Nicene Christian?

Even if your assumptions about what social conservatism meant were true--they aren't, and I would have thought this phenomenon of an outsider informing a group what its *real* objectives were would be beneath you in any case--you agreeing with Larison would, I think, show how unpolitical most of your political thinking is. That is, you seem to see politics as a realm for expressing ideas of the good rather than as an attempt to move the polity towards the good by fits and starts. A Christian civilization theocon could certainly support Romney on the grounds that he was the best option available.

Interestingly enough, this sort of failure to think politically is probably the major political difference between me and the paleocons.

-Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

"I'm not sure I understand. You *agree* with Larison? That is, you think its hypocritical for social conservatives to vote for someone who isn't an orthodox, Nicene Christian?"

No, Adam--I agree that it would be hypocritical for Larison, and those who emphatically adopt his approach to thinking about Christianity and Western civilization, to vote for president someone who isn't an orthodox, Nicene Christian. I don't adopt his approach; I think his approach to the relationship between Christianity and the West is problematic, at best, and I don't think Mormonism's challenge to that relationship, whatever it might be, ought to control one's votes. But I'm not a deep conservative, like he is, however much I sometimes kind of admire the stands he and other paleocons like him take.

"I would have thought this phenomenon of an outsider informing a group what its *real* objectives were would be beneath you in any case..."

I'm sorry if what I wrote came off sounding somewhat offensive to you; I genuinely meant to articulate a challenge that I see operating in the worldview of certain paleo- and theocons. To be sure, "social conservatism" is not exhausted by those categories.

"A Christian civilization theocon could certainly support Romney on the grounds that he was the best option available....[T]his sort of failure to think politically is probably the major political difference between me and the paleocons."

Well, and that's where we come up against our slightly different assessment of things. As I've written before, it seems to me that a lot of the First Things, theoconservative critique actually implies, or indeed requires, a degree of deep discontent with, a MacIntyre-esque rejection of, the modern liberal order. And yet, the FT is nothing if not adept at incorporating America's liberal history and civic religion into their arguments for change. I don't begrudge them that; I have my own interests in promoting a stronger civic religion, as you well know. But I also think, when all put together, it comes out somewhat incoherent. You may disagree, or you may say the incoherence is irrelevant, since it makes for a good strategy. I'll admit that it very well may be the latter, but that won't stop me from observing that, I think at least, it's also the former. That's the theorist, as opposed to the activist, in me I suppose.

Anonymous said...

"You may disagree, or you may say the incoherence is irrelevant, since it makes for a good strategy. I'll admit that it very well may be the latter, but that won't stop me from observing that, I think at least, it's also the former. That's the theorist, as opposed to the activist, in me I suppose."

Interesting. What's needed, then, is a theoretical reason to justify theoretical inconsistencies that are necessary for political reasons. I think this is doable. In fact, Mormonism does something like this.

-Adam Greenwood

Chris Hayes said...

Understanding Larison as a Reactionary (a self-proclaimed one at that) is key to this, in my view. Anything but adamant fidelity to the Orthodox tradition, in his view, is heresy. With the constant flux that life gives us, Reactionaries weigh the new against the old. discarding many things the rest of the world embraces.

Having weighed Mormonism against his Orthodox beliefs and finding it deficient, for Larison to accept a Mormon president would probably require a conversion to Mormonism. I don't see that happening next week. It's also something I hope no one would do without some serious thought and prayer.

The issue of whether this is "political thinking" relies on the same principles. Some would define "political thinking" as a matter of give and take, with the end result being what matters. Obviously, this is a broad path, with individuals and groups all having to draw their own lines as to what is acceptable.

A Reactionary relying on revealed truths as absolutes will work within the framework of those principles in judging anything new, because if absolutes are really absolutes, any deviation from them can lead to nothing but trouble.

A difference (THE difference?) between the Orthodoxy Daniel holds to and Mormonism is this: Who has the revealed absolutes? Either God passed his salvific truths through the Bible and the Holy Traditions that the Orthodox hold to, or the Mormon's are led by a Prophet who speaks to and for God - they're mutually exclusive. Again, this is for individuals to decide. The Orthodox Church's rejection of Roman Catholics wanting to "mend things" between the two could probably be discussed in a similar manner.

As for the rest of Christianity, or any other group, some hold to the idea of absolutes and some don't. It's a pretty wide field with the "give/take" spectrum proportional to the "absolute truth/relative truth" spectrum.

Chris Hayes

love the girls said...

Russel Arben Fox writes : “it is not necessarily obvious either exactly how America's culture and society fits into Western civilization's historical Christian identity”

If you mean prior to Descartes, I agree because the US was founded on and has always been a creature of the enlightenment.

But if on the other hand you mean Christianity alla the reformation, then I disagree because the reformation is likewise a creature of the enlightenment, and thus the two are of similar root and nature.

What the US has become is fitting, given its being a creature of the enlightenment, and not a creature of “historical Christianity” prior to Descartes, but Mormonism is an entirely different creature from either.