More than any presidential election I have voted in, this year’s tends to have strongly religious overtones. No doubt much of this comes from an era where anyone can have their say through blogs and commentary, but we also have some interesting dynamics never before present in an election.
I. Can We Really Elect a Mormon?
For starters, we have a modern first….a non-Protestant ticket….a Republican one at that. I tend not to view this as too unusual, however in that the Republicans have a ticket that includes the most American of religions.
Dismissing Protestant theology, but spurred on by the Calvinist idea of a manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, Mormons mimicked the story of God taking favor with a particular people. This is very Protestant as prior to the Reformation, political reality was about a big tent empire and not the uniqueness of nation-states and peoples. (In modern Europe the push for union often brought Catholics and Protestants into conflict with one another….you can guess which side each came down on.)
In America, uniqueness was the battle cry. Catholics were held suspect and discriminated against for the wrongly held notion that belonging to a church that crossed borders made one unpatriotic. Protestants could not be accused of this because their churches did not cross these boundaries. Still the evangelical reach was a global one and not uniquely American. A wagon master may believe God to be fully on the side of America as he crossed the Great Plains even as his cousin in Germany would salute a coat of arms inscribed with Gott uns mit. The Mormons could one up both the Protestants and Catholics by having God give them a promised land. Only Judaism could claim a similar story and that was not on American shores.
You can do the exercise yourself. Go to the Bible and replace the word bondage with persecution, Egypt with the East (all rugged Americans know the East is an extension of Europe), the Nile with the Mississippi and the Missouri, Mt Sinai with the Rockies, Canaanites with Indians, and Canaan with Utah. Even the best that westward bound American loving Christians could do was talk about giving use to the land which they said Native peoples had not done. That would give America the romance of the Pony express and the transcontinental Railroad (not to mention the lust for gold), but it lacks the mythic story found on the Mormon trail, where Romney’s great-grandfather, Helaman Pratt, was born in covered wagon.
Of course this is only an exercise and there are those who also use this kind of thinking to bring up such things as the silliness of the “White Horse Prophecy” and why we should not elect a Mormon. It happens every time a Mormon runs for office and needs to be put to bed. Fortunately it is not as prevalent as it was four years ago. But if you want a good read and love fairy tales especially of the survivalist fantasy type, look it up.
Still the question comes up if we are ready to elect a Mormon forgetting the question should be “should we elect Romney?” If we have to make it about Mormonism then we have to temper our that’s not how we belief arguments with the fact that no other religion is more American.
II. Desperately seeking WCF (marital status not important)
In 2008, I heard a political pundit, who was not entirely joking; announce that the election had been cancelled so that a focus group of 15 Catholic women from central Ohio could decide who would be the next President.
His point was valid. Americans tend to be content with the moral messiness of inconsistent ethics. It is the product of a strong two party system that has to divide economic and social issues. If we are real honest what it almost always divides is those who must choose between pro-labor and pro-life sentiments.
America, unlike most of the rest of the democratic world, does not have a pro-labor, pro-life party (or for that matter a pro-capital, pro-choice party) and every four years presidential candidates go after the hearts of those who have to come down on one side or the other often betraying one half of their identity. This year is no different. Combine with this that it is the electors that are counted in determining the presidency and not the popular vote and an interesting dynamic emerges.
So to win the presidency, it helps to do a couple of things. First make sure you have a “Catholic” voice in the guise of the vice-president. Never mind he (it is always a he) will have to throw out one half the “seamless garment” equation to mesh with party politics. For 2012, check….we have pro-labor, pro-choice Biden and pro-capital, pro-life Ryan.
Next you get to throw out forty five states. You keep the five good ones, those being Ohio and Florida by default, and your wild cards. This year’s wild card winners are Virginia, North Carolina, and especially Colorado. Now you go to those five states and disregard the minorities because they belong to Obama. You forget Romney’s Protestants and Obama’s non-believers (including a few who have to come to terms with the fact neither party supports their pro-capital, pro-choice sensibilities) as well. You can “almost” forget the Jewish vote as most live in Obama states anyway….but remember you have to try to get Florida. Now you consider who you have left….white Catholic women living in five states.
How I would hate to be a Catholic woman in Virginia or Ohio this year. I can live with my political schizophrenia because it does not matter. But these have to make a decision that does matter and in so doing are often brought to “the lesser of two evils” place or if we want to say it more positively “the greater good” place.
We could avoid the whole mess by going to the popular vote making everyone count, but that is a moot point in 2012. We could also move to having another legitimate party or two, but that won’t happen before November anyway. Or we could go the direction of parties with consistent ethics, but that does not allow for some of the morally messy nuances that are sometimes necessary in the pragmatic political world and which we are fonder of than we care to admit. In the meantime we will have to concentrate on those who matter like the housewife from St. Bridget’s parish in Richmond.
III. You Can’t Have It Both Ways
I made two political predictions this year. One was liberty loving Colorado had to choose between economic or social liberalism and decide the president. I will stand by that one as I think Florida and Ohio will split and North Carolina will vote Romney . My prediction that Romney would do the safe thing and give Portman the Republican VP spot tanked.
We now have the firebrand as close to libertarian as you can get Paul Ryan in that spot. I really did underestimate Romney’s boldness. What does this have to do with the religious landscape?
For starters it puts a Catholic on the ticket and one that appeals to tea party Evangelicals. It also puts on the ticket someone who will clearly anger the left and force the seamless garment folks into supporting a Republican far to their right, or to side with a pro-choice Obama who also presided over two wars, though he did not get us into the first. (See point number two about the importance of Catholic women.)
When it comes to the preferential option for the poor, Ryan has an image problem. Gary Weiss, author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Battle for the Soul of America, and CNN contributor has been hitting Ryan hard on a little inconsistency he has. In April Ryan had to defend himself when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops used Matthew 25 to criticize his budget proposal. Ryan responded by saying that the Conference did not represent all Catholic bishops . The USCCB in turn responded by issuing a letter saying it did represent all bishops on matters such as these. (I think this may be the first time I was able to find source material from Fox News and the Huffington Post that matched.)
Regardless of this Ryan, long considered an admirer of Rand, did come out in April to say he cared more for Aquinas than Rand, but with his stern budget and tea party credentials he has taken it on the chin by some, the most scathing criticism being that his economics does not match the Christian idea of care for one’s neighbor. This is where Weiss, who has no dog in this fight, pounded Ryan saying he can’t have it both ways….you have to choose either Aquinas or Rand. Now Ryan has his work cut out for him. It is not that most voters will know all that much about either Aquinas or Rand, but Ryan will have to make some economic sense. Stand by the cause of liberty (“I will never live for the sake of another man and ask no man to live for mine.” John Galt) or stand by the cause of charity (“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” John the Baptist) Of course there is a middle ground. To do this, he can ask a Protestant. They have had 500 years of rectifying charity and liberty. In fact America itself has a history of applying such Protestant principles to politics.
IV. Catholic Voters and Protestant Principles:
One of the things I really admire about Catholic voters is that when they go to the ballot, they vote for more than just themselves. It may be the unborn or it may be the poor. They may even have to choose between the two, but they never like the idea. If they ever found themselves with the option to support the seamless garment in full, they would be joined by large numbers of Black Christians, Confessional Lutherans, Continuing Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox and Muslims. A candidate who matched this would make for a mighty storm. No wonder American political parties want to keep the divide and conquer approach to things when it comes to religion. No such option exists this year though, especially as the election will only be about competing economic principles anyway.
One of the things I really admire about Protestantism is its pragmatics that seeks to neither give you a free pass in life nor run you over. If there is a compromise to the liberty/charity divide, it can be found in the principles of the Protestant Revolution. These principles are as absent in American life today as the Catholic respect for life, though they form the basis of what many believe is best about supporting one’s neighbor. In short for the Protestant there is always the compulsion to give. It is also okay to receive. The noble person will always give when able and receive only when they absolutely have to, even though it does not bring them one wit closer to God. Theologically this is the result of the gift of faith, though on the surface it may seem to be more about cold pragmatic people who would behave no differently with or without religion. It can be summed up in a Lutheran paradox: “a Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
Think about it….it has huge economic implications and says a lot about a good way to do charity…..of course it may be a tough thing to live by because it would compel a huge percentage of people to stop looking for tax loopholes and a whole bunch more to go out and look for a job. If this could be done and united with the Catholic respect for life, just think about: the rich pay their share, the poor find work and become taxpayers, laziness is chastised, diligence rewarded, monies fund works of charity and infrastructure (not to mention more than a few playgrounds) rather than war, the birthrate improves so that the old are cared for by the young, parents seeking adoption are prized, fiat currency becomes a balanced commodity, and individual liberty is wedded to communitarian ethics.
The irony is all of this is already available in the religious landscape of America even if the political one chooses to ignore it. These religious values are among what is best about whom we are. Though our politicians and far too many who call themselves religious choose to ignore them does not negate that. It is just unfortunate that we will have yet another election that does not allow us that choice.