Thursday, May 12, 2011

What Matt Missed About Mitt (and Jon)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Matt Bowman, a Mormon blogger I know slightly (in the same way, I suppose, that just about all Mormon bloggers know each other at least "slightly"), has written a fine and thoughtful piece about the different "Mormonisms" of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, the two members of my faith that are at present making noise about their interest in pursuing the Republican nomination for president next year. His basic thesis is that the differences between them in how they talk about and relate to others in the context of their religious beliefs, and consequently their differences in how they may potentially reach out to voters in the Republican primaries and then the general election, is greatly a function of their ages: that there is a "generation gap" between a Mormon who came of age in the mid-1960s (as Romney did), and the late 1970s (as Huntsman did), and that gap is meaningful.

I agree with Matt that the gap is meaningful--but I disagree that it is as meaningful as he makes it out to be, and I also think he missed some of what more crucially makes it meaningful, to whatever degree it is. While much of this is obvious to many of us who were born and raised in the LDS Church, let me lay out a couple of caveats to Matt's piece for my non-Mormon audience:

1) Matt writes intelligently about the deeply patriotic "business Mormonism" that characterized the mid-20th-century Mormon elite; by the time polygamy had been dead (or at least strongly encouraged to seem so) for a couple of generations, you really did have a group of pioneer-stock Mormons--which Romney is; his own father was born in the Mexican Mormon colony of Colonia Dublán, which was founded by members of the faith fleeing anti-polygamy persecution--that were utterly committed to succeeding on the organizational, meritocratic terms of postwar America. And it's true that you can see echoes of that legacy in Romney's occasional awkwardness in dealing with, as Matt put it, "the cultural diversity and religious pluralism evident in late twentieth-century America." But the video I just linked to lends a bit of even weightier evidence to Matt's thesis, some evidence which he, strangely, never even touches upon: when Mitt Romney went out to proselytize to the world in 1966, he was defending a church which still banned African-Americans from the hold positions of priesthood authority, which is an absolutely central part of the church's administrative life. But, by the time Jon Huntsman when out on his mission in 1979, that policy had been changed. The removal of this, the single largest albatross around our church's neck, in terms of its moving away from its vaguely isolationist, communitarian, and theocratic past, and into becoming one community amongst many in America's hyper-liberal present, between the years when Mitt was a young Mormon man, and when Jon was one, can't possibly be ignored.

2) But nor, however, should it be made into a larger explanatory variable than it should be. Matt writes a good deal about the legacy of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who lead our church through the 1990s, and he's correct to do so: Hinckley was in so many ways an unexpectedly savvy leader, a man comfortable with the media and the ways the "American way of life" was being transformed by globalization and technology. (I wrote some thoughts about his legacy here and here.) It's absolutely true that American Mormons over the past 20 years have been led, in all sorts of ways both subtle and obvious, to accommodate themselves to being in a busy, diverse, individualistic world. However, Matt chooses not to incorporate into his essay the way those same years under President Hinckley were arguably years of fine-tuning and polishing the veneer on a process of moral retrenchment. It was Hinckley who famously demanded a "raising of the bar" for American proselytizing missionaries; and of course, it was during those same years that Utah went from being an imbalanced but still politically patchwork state to becoming the most Republican state in the country, and the church developed the public rhetoric (most particularly the Proclamation on the Family) which has led directly to our church's engagement in the culture wars, particularly regarding homosexuality, to a degree which it hasn't since the 1970s. So the church which shaped Romney may have been less comfortable with the structures and media of American pluralism than was the case with Huntsman, but it simply isn't true that Huntsman church, a generation (or at least a decade and a half) later was somehow more moderate or flexible. It has simply chosen, for better and/or for worse, different battles, ones more in line with the general conservative movement to shore up what many once assumed to be fundamental, "established" values, than it did in the past.

So if the real explanation can't be reduced to a generational difference, what is it? Probably simple piety: Huntsman doesn't take his Mormonism quite as seriously as pioneer-stock Romney does. Matt's essay constructs a valid cultural/historical argument, but as it chooses not to tell the most important part of the relevant history, and then chooses not to touch on the most obvious religious variable at work between Romney and Huntsman, it is missing where the better explanation of their differences lies.


Anonymous said...

I wonder which is worse, politically: being a believing Mormon, or being a Jack Mormon.

matt b said...

Russell - thanks for this, and a couple of thoughts.

1) Unfortunately, the piece that TNR published was about a thousand words shorter than the one I turned in; what was deleted included more discussion about both men's progenitors and the church in the sixties and seventies, though I probably even in that draft failed to hit the priesthood ban as hard as you would like. I agree that it's probably relevant, though I would not call it "the most important" issue in question. And I suspect neither man would have had to deal with it much on their respective missions. (though Romney likely slightly more.)

2) I don't think I claim that the church is became "more moderate or flexible" under Hinckley. You could make a case for the latter, perhaps, but certainly I never assert the former. Indeed, I specifically stress that Hinckley's presidency maintained the moral claims of his predecessors, and I particularly tried to avoid saying anything about the way religion influenced either man's politics, cultural or otherwise. Rather, I what I'm talking about is the stuff of public relations, image making, and comfort dealing with the world. And it is simply true, I think, that the church is more comfortable now with these things than it was twenty years ago; Prop 8 - and particularly its aftermath - taught me that the church certainly cares a great deal about this sort of thing. And Huntsman simply does not seem as anxious about his Mormonism in public as Romney does; this may be due to his personal piety, but that's both a bit psychoanalytic and a bit reductive. (And, alas, the Time article came out five days after I turned in my last draft. Oh, well. )

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, thanks for the response.

1) I just really see the end of the priesthood ban as a kind of synecdoche for a huge transformation. In 30 years, from the era of David O. McKay to Gordon B. Hinckley, the church went from being an institution lead by men who had distant but real personal memories of the pioneer era, of building an isolated Zion while waiting for the world to end, to being an institution that was all about the internet and globalization. I can't think of any other step in that process that was more freighted with significance than the 1978 revelation; nothing else comes close, I think.

2) I may have read into your essay something that wasn't there, in which case I apologize. But I do think that, one way or another, you were implying that a conservative Mormon businessman who came of age in the mid-60s was going to be less "accommodating" of the world than would a conservative Mormon businessman who came of age in the late 70s. And I'm not sure that's true; the bright young things filling up BYU's highly exclusive slots these days really are more at peace with the diversity of the world, but they seem no less accepting of it. That's an orthodoxy question, and it's one that I would say is more central to understanding Romney's and Huntsman's differences.