Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How Mitt Romney Deflated the Mormon Moment

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Before we get too far into this week's Democratic National Convention, let me get off my chest something about last week's, something that I've alluded to in other places before, but now, having watched and read up on all the Mormon-centric stuff that came out of Tampa last week, I'm more certain of than ever. The speeches given last Thursday, culminating in Mitt Romney's speech accepting the presidential nomination of the Republican Party wasn't just a "climax" for the Mormon Moment--it was the effective sublimation and emptying of it as well.

Of course, my friend McKay Cobbins was surely correct when he observed in a Buzzfeed story that "a survey of 100 Mormons would likely yield 100 different interpretations of what Romney's nomination will mean for their religion." After all, the whole idea of a "moment" for something as broad and as personal as a religion is itself kind of weird, and its meaning certainly difficult to nail down. If one wishes to speak only historically, than a "moment" for a religion would presumably be any point of crisis or change or expansion, any time when the religion in question encounters the public (or multiple publics) differently than before. From that perspective, as historians like Philip Barlow and Laurie Maffly-Kipp have observed, there have been multiple "Mormon moments" over the years, as my faith has gone from being small and persecuted, to defiant and oppositional, to corporatized and mainstream, and now to global and perhaps something else. But for all that historical and subjective variety, this particular moment--the one which really began in 2011, as the formal start of Romney's presidential campaign coalesced along with a host of references to Mormonism in popular culture into something larger than the sum of its parts--has nonetheless, I think, had at least one constant theme: just where does Mormonism fit into, or intersect with, America's political culture? (Yes, it's a question about the United States; for a truly international Mormon moment, we'll probably need to wait a few more decades at least.) The answer which one cultural observer after another, both smart and stupid ones, tended to touch on was consistent: one way or another, it all came down to dollars and cents. And Romney--no doubt unintentionally, but with genuinely sincere belief too, I warrant--really didn't prove them at all wrong.

The list of speculations from the past year about what the Mormons think of money--speculations both from those of us within the Mormon church and from those outside of it--is too long to thoroughly document. But consider: we've heard from Adam Gopnik and Ross Douthat. There's been cover stories in Business Weekly and Harpers (which was atrocious, by the way). Even the much praised essay by Walter Kirn (the author of the original "Mormons Rock!" Newsweek piece), which was a long personal reflection and defense of the religion that he once called his own, couldn't avoid making as its climax an extended anecdote that revealed us Mormons (admittedly, to our own pleasure....but I would also unapologetically say quite honestly) as much given to cooperation and collective help--in other words, it presented a consideration of how Mormonism creates its own small communities and economies amongst the faithful. We just haven't seemed to be able to get away from it. You could argue that Romney is the primary reason for this--as, with the sole exception of Ross Perot, the wealthiest man in post-Industrial Revolution times to make a plausible run for the presidency, perhaps it is inevitable that the questions turn in this direction. Or perhaps it is simply the times: in a time of economic recession and frustration, my church's long history of  providing welfare to its poorer members--extensively reported on in major news outlets--again make make understanding Mormonism's relationship with money seem crucial. Either way, it's pervasive; when a group of ten faithful and scholarly Mormons put together a collection of concerns and questions about Romney's candidacy, lots of stuff came up, from same-sex marriage to Romney's likelihood of being guided by the Holy Ghost. But the most frequent comment, if you go through and count the lines, was simply: where do, or how do, Mormon beliefs fit into the economic choices which would face a president today?

There are many ways in which Romney could have dodged all of this, and frankly that's what I expected him to do, when I commented a couple of weeks ago, in reference to his then-upcoming convention speech, that I assumed "his experience as a leader in the Church for the last 40 years will be totally ignored." Clearly I was wrong there; Romney and his campaign instead surprised me and many others, by finding a politically palatable way to tell the story of his (and my) faith. But neither did he challenge or rebut the pre-occupations of those who see the Mormon story today as just another tale of a once-utopian, communitarian and egalitarian faith accepting mainstream economic norms. On the contrary, if Romney's acceptance speech, coming at the end of a day in which speakers made repeated references to his long history of compassionate church service and administrative experience, was meant to climax an argument--even if just an implicit one--about how this huge part of his life ought to add to his value as a presidential candidate, then we Mormons should be sad, not ecstatic. Because in the end, as I read his speech, Romney's triumphant stand at the top of the Mormon moment saw him pointing towards a narrative which sublimates all that economic speculation to as ordinary and as ideological a message as one can imagine a Republican politician in America today giving: that his religious faith was part of what makes him American, and as a good American he embraces business, because business growth is what all God-fearing, authentic America's truly want and deserve.

Let's break this down:

First, there was his constant invocations of "America" (it or its cognates were mentioned more than 90 times in the speech, meaning he referenced it on average nearly three times a minute). America is a country of people of faith--particularly, faith in the future. The freedom of religion which plays such a huge role in our civil religion is put on the same level with the freedom to build a business. This is the "essence of the American experience": to experience, and to expect, a faith in the wide-open opportunities which the future presumably holds. Both the "riches of this world" as well as the "richness of this life" are identified with a freedom to grasp the future:

We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better. They came not just in pursuit of the riches of this world but for the richness of this life. Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind. Freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands. This is the essence of the American experience.


Second, there was his conviction that this freedom to grasp the best that the future offers is "deserved." It is something inextricably entwined with being American, and with having faith in America. In what was--on the basis of my repeat viewings, anyway--his most earnest and impassioned state of the night, Romney insisted:

I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we can do something. With your help we will do something. Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, “I’m an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better! My children deserve better! My family deserves better! My country deserves better!”

Third, his way of talking about what he and his wife Ann built as their lives in Massachusetts unfolded--with its touching and no-doubt heartfelt words about congregations growing and helping each other, and the civic strength which such mutual service imparts to us all--moved easily, and almost without a beat, talking about how that same strength was most obviously revealed through the construction of businesses and the creation of jobs:

That is the bedrock of what makes America, America. In our best days, we can feel the vibrancy of America’s communities, large and small. It’s when we see that new business opening up downtown. It’s when we go to work in the morning and see everybody else on our block doing the same.

Which finally, and fourth, leads to his primary claim against President Obama: that he doesn't understand business, which presumably means he doesn't understand the real religious faith in the future which animates this country, which therefore also presumably means that he doesn't really understand America itself either:

The President hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business.


Let me give credit to the defenders of how my church has grown to become one of the wealthiest religious bodies in the United States. In the face of all the (I think often entirely legitimate) criticism of the ways the Mormon church has institutionally embraced a growth-and-investment-oriented mentality in regards to how it deals with its financial holdings, it remains the case that all this economic activity, however much of departure all this is from the communitarian and egalitarian Zion which my and Mitt Romney's church once tried to build, nonetheless is still about maintaining and extending the influence and mission of the church. In short, it may just be capital, but its consecrated capital. Obviously you almost certainly won't ever see such a perspective endorsed by any major political candidate in our pluralistic political society. And yet, someone coming from that perspective could still talk about money in connection with service, as something secondary to self-justifying economic goals could they not?

I'm going to assume that Romney most certainly could--he just chose not to, and by so doing, extinguished one of narrative lights which the Mormon moment kept lit. On the basis of Romney's speech, the preferred mode of economic activity is entrepreneurial and individual, rather than collective; it is grounded not in a vision of congregational stewardship, but is part of the fabric of America itself; and its clearest distillation is to be found in an expected promise of profit and growth, not in providing succor to others. That's taking much of all that has been speculated about Mormonism in the mass media over the past year and aligning it with America's civil religion of progress, its individualistic and capitalistic culture, and its moralization of business as the purest sort of financial activity. Some of those things I like, and some I dislike....but like it or dislike it, the one thing it most surely did is take the political distinctiveness out of our moment, and it's probably not going to come back.

Assuming he loses, that is. Obviously if Romney wins the presidency, then the slate (the Etch-a-Sketch?) is mostly wiped clean as far as the media is concerned, and a new political narrative will be spun, one in which Romney's own shaping of the message from the White House could result in tensions, questions, and insights which would make what has appeared to me to be the relentless--and frankly kind of banal--pre-occupation with economic questions that we've seen this election season seem silly by comparison. But the latest polls suggest that my old prediction is going to be wrong, and Romney will go down to defeat in November. So here, as a reward for anyone who has read all the way to the end, is one of the few reasons I wouldn't be too unhappy if Romney wins: because it would mean that events would force Romney to continue to speak out, and hence at least occasionally make use of his background of faith, as an influential political leader. And that would mean our moment, in the public imagination, wouldn't be nearly so stranded as Romney left it in Tampa.

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