Further to Chief Conspirator Eugene’s post below on religion and public officials, I tried my best to answer that question in an article on Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee during the primary in the Weekly Standard (this link directly to the magazine; easier than the SSRN link below). The first part is snark – Andrew Sullivan called it political essay of the year, which I appreciated despite my general lack of enthusiasm for the Daily Dish – but the last part is a pretty serious attempt to address Eugene’s question. At risk of tooting my own horn (more than usual), I think it is one of the better things I’ve written in the last few years – meaning by that the answer to the question I gave in the second half of the piece. It touched some kind of chord at the time, because besides Andrew Sullivan, I got appreciative notes from Aryeh Neier and a conservative pastor who told me that he was surprised to see in a secular magazine of any kind a literal imprecation – and not, so far as he could tell, meant merely ironically. As he said, was your editor at the WS aware that in its pages you called down the wrath of heaven? Literally? Well, yes, my editor was perfectly aware of it – that’s why he didn’t cut anything out of the 6,000 words. But note that the angriest and most frequent email reactions came from Evangelicals deeply offended that I would cite not just to Isaiah but to the parallel passage in the Book of Mormon; that, apparently, was too close to desecration. The last half of the article goes directly to Eugene’s question, in the form of a debate between Mitt Romney and his famous religion speech (which I accuse of conservative multiculti relativism), Huckabee, and Christopher Hitchens.
Mormons, Muslims, and Multiculturalism. Abstract from SSRN:
This essay (6,000 words), which appeared in the Weekly Standard ostensibly as a comment on Mitt Romney’s religion speech of December 2007, contains something to offend nearly everyone. It bluntly attacks presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and his evangelical followers for their demand for a Christian president, and calls them religious bigots.
The essay also rejects, however, a central claim of Romney’s religion speech, that all religious doctrines are beyond criticism or political argument – asserting that Romney, in the attempt to insulate himself from any questions of religion, has endorsed what might be called conservative multiculturalism and moral relativism. The essay argues that this is a disastrous move not just for American conservatives, but for American politics more generally, and urges that liberal toleration has to be understood not as a form of relativism putting religious doctrine beyond scrutiny but instead as a liberal suspension of public judgment on matters that one might well believe one entitled to judge in private. In effect, if the question is what parts of a candidate’s religious beliefs are properly subject to public political scrutiny, Huckabee and his evangelical followers say all-in; Romney says, all-out. Neither of those can be considered the answer of liberal toleration. The essay then proposes, in its second half, three rough rules of thumb for determining whether a proposition of religion believed by a candidate for public office ought to be considered fairly open for political discussion.
An enormously important reason why it matters that a liberal democracy get these answers right, the essay concludes, is that it matters today, in the world as it stands today, to be able to ask these questions of Islam, and of Muslim candidates. The answers to important questions – relations of church and state, apostasy, free expression, the status of women and gays, etc. – cannot simply be set aside. Either voters will not trust Muslim candidates and will simply refuse to elect them, because they are not allowed, under rules of multicultural political correctness (including Romney’s conservative multiculturalism), to ask these questions – or we can put these questions properly on the table, while at the same time having liberal grounds for ignoring questions of doctrine having no substantial bearing on public policy. The former will save everyone’s delicate feelings; only the latter, however, will provide the path for full participation in a democratic political community. (This essay is an unabashed, unapologetic jeremiad and it angered many readers when it first appeared.)
(Sample of the snark below the fold … this essay dated from 2007; many of the characters have shifted position since then. Update: Reflecting on a couple of the comments, yeah, I should actually display some of the more serious argument, which I am putting first below the fold although it makes for a long below-the-fold. But let me also add that although I describe it (accurately) as snark, the nastiness serves a genuine and in my view legitimate affective purpose, which is to ridicule without apology both Romney’s transparent attempt to put any questions about his religion behind a political wall, and a surprising (to me at least) number of Evangelicals’ view that Romney’s religion alone was a disqualifier for the presidency – as many of them no doubt continue to think today and to which I continue to say, further to the burden of the article … God smite them.)
From the second half, the argument over religious tests:
Let us now pause to reason together and soberly consider what damage the evangelical goading and Romney’s response have wrought upon the possibility of pluralism of belief in political America.
The issue which the evangelicals profligately put on the table, and which Romney inadequately answered, is this. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for taking office. Individual voters are free, of course, in the secrecy of the voting booth, to take account of whatever they feel like, including such morally unworthy criteria as race and religion. Candidates are likewise free to campaign on their religion, even on their religious bigotry, and have done so throughout the history of the Republic. But that still leaves open the question of what voters who aspire to goodness and virtue ought to allow themselves to inquire of a candidate for public office, and in particular, the presidency. What, if any, content of doctrine ought a candidate have to explain about his or her religion in the public square as a condition of being elected? And what, if anything, ought to be regarded by an ethical citizenry to be a matter of private belief and therefore outside the bounds of public inquiry?
The answer offered by Huckabee’s presidential bid is plain enough. At least in principle, it’s all-in. Every particle of belief is in-bounds and subject to inquiry and debate. There are apparently limits to “all-in” even for Huckabee; at this moment they happen to be his church sermons, which his campaign has refused to release publicly and one wonders why. And when Huckabee’s speculation that Mormons might “believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers” was aired in the New York Times, he was embarrassed enough to apologize to Romney, saying “I don’t think your being a Mormon ought to make you more or less qualified for being a president.” Nice to have that cleared up.
But why have a “no religious tests” principle in the first place? Why shouldn’t every jot and tittle of doctrine be subject to public scrutiny? Would this not serve to give us more information about those who would be our leaders and rulers and, anyway, shouldn’t we seek leaders who are, as Huckabee apparently believes of himself, beneficiaries of Providence? Shouldn’t we want to elect the winners of the Providential lottery?
And note that on this matter, atheistic rationalists and religious overbelievers join hands to say, all-in. A Hitchens, after all, would say that the electorate deserves to know the full irrationality of a candidate, and that is best expressed in his or her religious beliefs, even apparently private ones. (He would say this, and has said it: “Phooey,” writes Hitchens, “to the false reticence of the press and to the bogus sensitivities that underlie it.”) Just as it is not considered irrelevant to know if one believes that space aliens came to Roswell, New Mexico, or has views on Area 51–shades of Dennis Kucinich?–a candidate’s views on the Virgin Birth or transubstantiation or creationism are likewise relevant to making an informed electoral choice as to a candidate’s fundamental rationality. Most of us think that Hitchens goes way too far–still, does anyone believe it was truly irrelevant to the public trust that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer on weighty matters of public policy? Well, so too with Focus on the Family, although the issue of who might provide better advice remains in doubt.
The long-standing demurral in Anglo-American history against “all-in” sprang from prudence–it was the answer from Elizabeth I on, and the traditional answer of anyone who had to rule a religiously divided kingdom. The alternative, after all, might be, and all too often was, civil war. Prudence counsels toleration insofar as politically possible. Yet toleration is much more than simply a consequence of prudence. Like forbearance, to which it is closely related, religious tolerance is genuinely a virtue and not simply a useful political practice. The reason is that religious toleration in the liberal tradition recognizes (as Hitchens does not) that religion both is, and is not, a matter of rationality and cognitive propositions testable according to the criteria of reason.
This is one of the most urgent recognitions in political culture today, and it is enormously troubling that these stakes have not been put squarely on the table in this debate among Christian pretenders to the presidency. It finally goes to the heart, that is, not of how society deals with Mormons or with evangelicals, but rather with the precedent being established in this dialogue for how American political society will treat with Islam and Muslims. The stakes for a liberal society could not be higher–or seemingly less evident in the discourse of the interlocutors.
Tt is therefore all the more unfortunate that the issue of religious tolerance should arise in a morally and intellectually underwhelming debate between unworthy Christian evangelicals and an opportunistic Mormon politician. They are not worthy of it, but the debate is emphatically taking place. On the one hand, religion is a set of contestable cognitive propositions–not necessarily finally assessable, because of subjectivities–but still a matter of rationality, and beliefs that could, in principle, be accepted as right, or come to be seen as wrong and then changed. Changed within the religion–as with Mormonism and its earlier racial doctrines, for example, even if change requires appeal to such rhetorical devices as gradual reinterpretation of sacred texts and practices or even divine revelation rather than rational discourse. Or, if not within the religion, then changed in extreme cases from without by rational discourse resulting in regulation by the state–as with Mormons and polygamy. If this were all there were to religion, the arguments for outside rational revision of it–apart from prudence and civil war–would be considerable.
On the other hand, we also recognize that religion is more than merely a set of rational and therefore mutable doctrines subject to rational scrutiny. It is also an affective identity in considerable measure acquired as part of who one is. In that sense and to that extent, it is accidental and immutable in the way that skin color, race, and ethnicity are accidental and immutable. It is therefore not merely of prudence, but of morality, that good people seek to avoid, unless for extraordinarily strong and publicly accessible reasons, putting a person to a test that forces them to forsake characteristics that make them who they are (or which forces them to contemplate civil war in defense of who they are).
On the one hand, religion has been regarded as something that can be shaped by rational discourse and necessarily sometimes even the application of political and state power. An individual in this light must consider the rationality of his or her religious beliefs and subject them to reason. On the other hand, religion also has an accidental and immutable quality to it which, in the extreme case of one’s eternal soul, can force an individual to the most harrowing choice. Liberal toleration has always taken account of both of these things. The canonical instance of the state forcing the issue in the United States was the outlawing of Mormon polygamy in the 19th century–and these were harrowing cases indeed, breaking apart families, even if they were not families recognized by the good Christians of the eastern United States.
Despite this history, Western liberalism has unaccountably decided to treat Islam and Muslims–not just Islamism or so-called “political Islam,” but Islam as such–as though only one prong of religiosity mattered, the immutable part. Islam is treated as a race, ethnicity, or skin color–an immutable characteristic not alterable by believers and therefore not a proper moral basis on which to judge them. The consequence has been, particularly in Europe, to put anything claimed to be Islamic beyond the bounds not merely of rational debate but of public regulation or even public protest.
We notably do not treat other religions this way …. ***
Now consider Mitt Romney’s speech and the answer he gave to the matter of religious tests …. Romney announced what might be called, appallingly, “conservative multiculturalism”–indeed, a form of conservative moral relativism. If the demand of the evangelicals was all‑in, then his answer was all-out.
To be sure, there was something good and liberal in part of his answer, and we should start with that. Romney said–correctly as a matter of deep liberalism–that for him to give representations as to the content of his faith would make him a representative of that faith, rather than of the people, who are of many faiths. To do so would be to head down the path of communalism, a political space defined not by a religiously neutral public sphere but by a division accepted as reasonably legitimate consisting of groups–religious, ethnic, whatever–that have claims on behalf of their immutably identified members. This is, by the way, the relatively humane (in historical perspective), but altogether illiberal political order of the Ottoman Empire. It is what many Muslims from those historical lands appear to think would be the best and natural political order in the lands to which they have emigrated–Canada, for example (which anyway has its own powerfully illiberal forces driving toward group-identity communalism), and, increasingly, Britain. It is not–at least not so far–the American way, and Romney was right firmly to reject it ….
The “all-out” answer that Romney gave was the denial that citizens might ever legitimately and ethically demand to know the content of religious doctrines professed by a candidate for public office. (“Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”) It is multiculturalist because it essentially treats all private beliefs as immutable and beyond reason, and because it says that to propose to subject any of them to public scrutiny of reason is an act of intolerance akin to racism. It is a position traditionally asserted by the left on behalf of its identity-politics constituencies. It is dismaying, to say the least, that Romney would claim it for his own to deny the legitimacy of all questions.
It is, moreover, relativist in implication. Toleration is not an assertion of relativism. It is, rather, the forbearance from judging and acting on judgments in the public sphere that one might well believe oneself entitled to make in private. Toleration entails the suspension of public disbelief, or at least political action thereupon, about matters that one might nonetheless consider well within the realm of private moral judgment. Relativism, by contrast, is denial of grounds for judging at all. They could not be more different–and, crucially, relativism removes the possibility of toleration because it removes the possibility of reasoned judgment.
Romney’s “all-out” stance goes well beyond a plea for liberal toleration to an assertion of genuine relativism and the denial of the very possibility of moral judgment ….
The issue then is: If neither all-in nor all-out is the answer, are there principles that can help define what religious questions should be in-bounds and what should be out of bounds in a tolerant, liberal polity?
It will always be messy. There will always be room for loud argument over whether something is legitimately in or out. But here are some provisional ground rules, offered as practical rules of thumb, not as academically defensible philosophy. First, for something to be “in,” there does have to be a connection to governance, politics, and the public sphere. This is the most traditional form of American religious toleration in politics. A Buddhist’s belief in reincarnation ought to be neither here nor there; a Mormon’s conception of the Savior likewise; and a Jew’s refusal to regard Jesus as Lord likewise. But what about things that are “in”? Religious doctrines of sanctity of life, for example, touching issues of public law and policy such as abortion, stem cells, or capital punishment must surely be on the table. But in what sense?
The publicly reasoned parts of these issues are not the problem; the problem is what to say about religious values that a candidate cannot expect his or her constituents necessarily to share, but which some or all voters might think relevant to public office. To what extent can one inquire of a candidate’s religious doctrines? If the candidate puts it on the table as religious doctrine, then fair game, certainly. But what if it is not introduced by the candidate as something that is no longer private? In the first place, it seems to me, we should presume that even where the belief at issue is a religious one, deriving from a religious doctrine which is part of a faith, the locus of questioning should be on the person and not on the faith as such. It should presume to be about the personal convictions of the candidate as an individual, rather than corporate inquiries, so to speak, about the faith itself. This preserves at least provisionally the liberal separation of public and private, but it emphatically does not deprive the public of the chance to explore what a candidate’s private convictions are insofar as they relate to public issues but arise from private judgments. Even if one disagrees with a candidate’s position and is prepared to vote against a person on that basis, liberalism counsels in favor of doing so on the basis of the candidate’s personal convictions, rather than communal affiliation, even where the personal conviction arises from religion. A candidate may correctly refuse to speak for the faith, while still being properly pressed to answer about his or her personal convictions that might, or might not, arise from such faith.
And the nasty, snarky opening?:
Some personal declarations: Mitt Romney is not my candidate. He is (in my humble opinion) a man of principles so pragmatic that he lacks any unshakeable political foundation, save that he ought to be president of the United States. He is a politician of the moderate center who has sat down with his consultants in the calculus of management consultants everywhere and concluded that winning the presidency must mean dropping his moderation–itself principally a means of winning office in liberal Massachusetts–and reinventing himself as a man of the right. I’m afraid Fred Barnes was mistaken to suggest a few weeks ago in these pages that Romney means the “CEO as president.” Right church, wrong pew. In fact, Romney represents the rational-choice presidency of Bain, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey; democracy as the maximization of consumer preferences; the president as primus consultant inter pares. Thanks but no thanks.
Moreover, Romney’s consultant skills and consequent lack of principle (yet again in my humble opinion) do indeed derive from a specifically Mormon aspect of his upbringing. It is the two-year mission, in which young men of the church–the pairs of unenviable, dweeby males in their white shirts and ties trudging the streets, seeking converts as a rite of passage to adulthood–are taught discipline, perseverance, responsibility, leadership, self-reliance, teamwork, humility, and the beginnings of wisdom (in striking contrast to most of their non-Mormon peers of similar age). These young men are also taught, however, that success with God, as with life, is fundamentally a matter of sales. There is always a risk of young Mormons’ concluding that packaging is more important than product.
A not-insignificant number of the evangelical readers of this essay are now, I take it, solemnly nodding their heads, true, true, very true, how true, all true; quivering and twitching with the sure knowledge, the Text Message from God, that Mormonism is the cult they always thought it was and a shallow one at that. Yet the worship of sales and marketing is not exactly unknown among the numerous evangelicals who promiscuously deride Mormonism as some kind of weird, even dangerous, sect but who themselves gather weekly to–well, what? Sing their country-rockified, feel-good, self-help-book ballads, lovingly serviced with the Word of the Therapeutic God by blow-dried yet humble, down-home yet suburban preachers whose cavernous mega-churches resemble nothing so much as the Wal-Mart of the soul on sale. And you ridicule Mormons? One need not be Christopher Hitchens to think that if there is something funny about Mormons, there is something funnier about a certain brand of evangelicals’ condescending to them.
Although I once three decades ago served a Mormon mission in Peru, and am proud that I did, I am not a Mormon believer and have not been for a very long time. I hold no brief for the religion. On the contrary, I gave it up because I found I could not continue to say I believed a religion that had been rash enough to make many historical claims, the testability of which was not safely back in the mists of time in the way that protects Christian belief and worldly reason from meeting up to implode like matter and antimatter. The usual thing for a Mormon intellectual under such circumstances is to discover the beauty of postmodernism and its flexibility about rationality and empirical truth, but I’d rather stick with regular old modernity and the Enlightenment even if they don’t grant me complete freedom to believe seemingly contradictory things. The same goes for Mike Huckabee and his Bible fabulism. Yet neither is this an antireligious brief in the style of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who make breathless arguments as though they were the world’s first skeptics. There are very serious arguments, arguments I embrace, that preserve the possibility of religious belief on the basis of mystical experience. Unfortunately they are not available to rescue Romney’s faith in events claimed to have happened in historical time in the Western Hemisphere. And they are also not available to rescue Huckabee’s followers from their Bible literalism.
And yet, while an unbeliever in Mormonism, I hold the Latter-Day Saint church no ill will–unlike many lapsed Mormons, I’m neither embarrassed nor appalled by it. I rather admire it; I just find its central claims not at all believable. Mormonism not Christian? I am indifferent to the charge; if Mormonism was best understood at some point long ago in the past as perhaps a Christian fertility cult, it has been moving systematically toward the Protestant mean for an equally long period of time. And if our sects are to be thus put under the microscope, then perhaps evangelical Protestantism is best understood as a syncretic cargo cult promising self- and relational-fulfillment through Jesus, a religious movement marching relentlessly forward to embrace a secular culture of therapy in the name of the Nazarene. For this the saints suffered to be torn to pieces by wild beasts and submitted to the flames?
As to the question of cults, well, the traditional reference is to cult of personality–yet Mormonism ended its cult of personality with the deaths of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young some 150 years ago in favor of today’s thoroughly modern corporate church, which brings its own problems, but the mad domination of a charismatic cult of personality is not among them. Is it not evangelical Christianity, rather, with its lack of hierarchical authority and discipline, constituted of individual charismatic preachers vying for the fickle attention of crowds, that is today most susceptible to the charge of cults of personality, at least living ones? And is its leading contender at this moment not one Huckabee of Little Rock, who enthralls the crowds with his musings that he is favored of Providence? Who is this Jesus of Nazareth that I should worship his servant Huckabee and offer him my vote?
If I sound irritated at the bigoted attitudes among the lumpen evangelicals–if I sound irritated to discover that an astonishing number of my fellow citizens–30 percent or so, we are told–say they will not vote for a devout Mormon, no matter what his positions or policies, solely on account of his religion; or that Christian voters should not offer support however indirect to supposed cults, or that America must have a “Christian” president. Well, did I say irritated? I understate; furious. Specifically: Instead of a sweet smell among that saving remnant in Iowa, let there be a stink among the pigsties and factory farms of the faithful, instead of a girdle a rent, and instead of well set hair baldness, and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth, and a burning instead of beauty: and may the Lord smite them with a scab, the crown of the head of the 30 percent of Zion: the Lord shall discover their secret parts. (Isaiah 3:17, 24; Bk. Morm. 2 Nephi 13.)
And if I, an ex-Mormon, am furious, I only wonder what actual Mormons think in the secret places of their hearts. The bigotry that has accompanied Huckabee’s rise has certainly shifted my view of evangelicals. Am I the only one to find tiresome the endless trope among Christians of this country that they wish they could have (wholesome, good hearted) Mormons without (cultish, anti-Christian) Mormonism? My former confrères among the Mormons apparently do not count as Christian, yet somehow feel themselves bound by their allegiance to the teachings of the Nazarene to turn the other cheek and meekly suffer these attacks upon their spiritual fitness to participate in the public square. Admirably Christian, I suppose. I myself propose that Huckabee be horse-whipped in the square of public reason and turned out of politics so he can get on with writing The Seven-Day Diet of Creation and Mary Magdalene Got Skinny for Jesus and You Can Too.