Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Religious Aesthetics of Running for President

Fred Gedicks

My thanks to Jack Balkin for the invitation to guest blog on Balkinization.

The convergence of Mitt Romney’s unexpected early success as a Republican presidential candidate with current academic and popular interest in Mormonism nicely illustrates some contemporary American attitudes about religious belief. Although I’m a Mormon, my purpose here is not to apologize for Mormon history or theology, whose stranger aspects have drawn criticism not just from the Christian right ("Mormonism is a cult"), but also from the secular left ("Who’s crazy enough to belief this stuff?"). Instead, I think current discussions about Mormonism--and Romney’s Mormonism in particular–-expose a contradiction in popular beliefs about the role of faith in public life.

1. One of Romney’s challenges mirrors that facing the contemporary Mormon church-–how to show Mormonism as a mainstream faith without abandoning its distinctive beliefs and practices. (Another of Romney’s challenges is how to credibly explain that his recent conversion to the conservative Christian social agenda was not influenced by his decision to run for president, but that would be another post.) Mormon angels, gold plates, polygamy, temple rites, etc. make it easy to argue that any person who believes in such nonsense is either scary or irrational (or both), and thus unfit for public office (and, I suppose, much else). But this is really just old-fashioned religious bigotry, whether launched from the right or the left. From the right, it’s simply an attack on religious difference, and not a very persuasive one: The theological bed rocks of conservative Christianity–-the Trinity, resurrection, real presence, virgin birth, atonement for sins and salvation by grace–-are all as bizarre as the strangest Mormon doctrines, but seem "reasonable" because they’ve been around for centuries and are shared by large American majorities. Thus James Dobson argues--without any sense of irony--that the U.S. should be governed by (his version of) the teachings of a God who was born to a virgin, allowed himself to be crucified, and then brought himself back from the dead to an eternal life, at the same time that he suggests that Mormons or Muslims are simply too weird to be trusted with political power or office. From the left, the attack on Mormonism is an attack on religion generally. Unless one is willing to distinguish reasonable extra-rational beliefs from unreasonable ones–-the trap into which Dobson and conservative Christians fall--it’s hard to see how any religion could have survived the Enlightenment. That is, I think, pretty much Sam Harris’s argument.

2. On the other hand, Harris has a point–or, at least, half a point. How comfortable would most Americans be with a President who makes policy decisions by personal revelation and prayer? Not very, I think, and with good reason. One of the things that makes nonbelievers uncomfortable with believing government officials, and conventional believers uncomfortable with unconventionally believing officials, is the fear that such officials will take actions based on spiritual inspiration that is unsupported by, or even inconsistent with, rational argument (as the unbelievers or conventional believers see it). To paraphrase Jon Krakauer, people will do pretty much anything if they think that God is telling them to do it, and that’s pretty scary in a President (and, frankly, in a neighbor). It’s ok, then, for a President to pray for personal "strength," or "insight," or "courage, or even "inspiration," but not to ask God if the U.S. should, say, invade Iraq or raise taxes.

3. What this means is that, despite the desires of the Christian right and the fears of the secular left, the personal religious devotion of presidential candidates functions mostly as an aesthetic. Think Ronald Reagan. Personal religiosity communicates that the candidate is a "good person," meaning that he or she is a person-–more realistically, projects the image of a person--with whom the electorate is comfortable and to whom it can relate at some imagined personal level, but does not govern the candidate’s policy decisions in any but the most abstract, background sense.

Fred Gedicks



Good post. Perhaps your conclusion is too optimistic; I hope not. Time will tell.

Your conclusory point is, "What this means is that, despite the desires of the Christian right and the fears of the secular left, the personal religious devotion of presidential candidates functions mostly as an aesthetic."

Whether that proves true or not depends on how the desires and fears of the left and right are, in fact, contained. If such bigotry does prove significant in practice, it will overwhelm the "aesthetics" you describe.

Fred Gedicks:

What this means is that, despite the desires of the Christian right and the fears of the secular left, the personal religious devotion of presidential candidates functions mostly as an aesthetic. Think Ronald Reagan. Personal religiosity communicates that the candidate is a "good person," meaning that he or she is a person-–more realistically, projects the image of a person--with whom the electorate is comfortable and to whom it can relate at some imagined personal level, but does not govern the candidate’s policy decisions in any but the most abstract, background sense.

I know it's not your point here, but I am a bit bothered by the apparent "logic" there: If a person is given the benefit of the doubt of being a "good person" in being religious (absent any other evidence of such), then people who are not religious are, at the very least, not given that same benefit of the doubt. In fact, you'll see in some commentary from some people an assertion that religion doesn't just tend one towards "goodness" but is the sine qua non for such; if you aren't religious, you can't possibly have any morals ... or at least any Morals Worth Speaking About, since these moral haven't been blessed with the authoritative voice of some deity smarter than us (and if it's just us making up these morals, can't we just change our minds when expediency suggests such a course?).

It's been shown that being an atheist is a bigger strike against you if you want to serve in office than being a Muslim (or some other blasphemous "religion"), or even being gay.

Yet the current meme of the Christian RW is that religion (and in particular, Christianity) is under deadly attack from the hordes of secular (and prolly communistic) heathens that are really running the country. Go figure.


Fred, welcome to the site, and thank you for a thought-provoking post.

I wonder to what degree we can call the harmless affectation of good-guy devotion described above as aesthetics. Certainly, as Arne makes reference to, there's enough proof that a public demonstration of religiosity is almost a prerequisite for being a presidential candidate.

The post makes me think about Kennedy's presidential campaign, where he had to go out of his way to prove his lack of religiosity, or rather, his unwillingness to take orders from the hierarchy of the Catholic church.

Insofar as the public may have an idea of what it expects in a candidate, and shapes the political field through its choices, it makes sense to speak of an aesthetic. Using the candidate as the unit of analysis, however, requires the consideration of religiosity as performance--a manipulation of public perception that allows one to fit the cultural aesthetic of the day. This manipulation is something beyond the mere fronting of an Easter Sunday image that doesn't "govern the candidate's policy decisions."

Whether it's Reagan proposing a constitutional amendment to guarantee the permissibility of school prayer or George W. Bush creating faith-based initiatives that give billions of dollars every year to faith-based organizations, it is clear that the "good person" will also occasionally seek to implement policy changes that are concordant with their reputation.

Some policy decisions are made on the basis of religious commitment, although they may not be revealed to politicians as often in their prayers as in the wishes of the religious lobbies to which they are committed.

Of course, from the point of view of the lobbies, the candidate's religion may indeed appear to function as an aesthetic. For example, over the last few years my religious friends and family members have lamented the current president's lack of success in criminalizing abortion and preventing gay marriage legislation. To them, it was all just an act--simply a way of getting their vote, then leaving them in the lurch.

To others, however, the march in public policy towards the criminalization of abortion and stem-cell research never seems to cease. For these people, the proposition that a candidate that plays up his personal devotion in a campaign won't let that devotion influence his policy decisions in "any but the most abstract, background sense" is laughable.

As long as there is a group with voting power that can hold the candidate accountable for his inactions once in office, it's reasonable to suppose that the candidate is likely to make policy decisions concordant with the wishes of his supporters. (Of course, you touch upon that when making the aside about Romney's "conversion to the conservative Christian social agenda") Given the strength of the religious lobbies in America, I think it's problematic to reduce the role of faith in public life to an aesthetic.

Could members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) be more "Christian" than Evangelicals? . . Protestants and Catholics subscribe to the Nicene creed, which was initiated by the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century to rid Scriptures of the Apocrypha, some of which made reference to the oral traditions of Jewish and early Christian temple worship.

First Century Christian churches, in fact, continued the Jewish temple worship traditions:
1) Baptism of youth (not infants) by immersion by the father of the family
2) Lay clergy
3) Anointing with holy oil after baptism
4) Then clothing in white clothing

A First Century Christian Church has been re-constructed at the Israeli Museum, and the above can be verified. . And read Exodus Ch 29 for Aaron and his sons” ordinances. . Jewish Temple practices were continued by Christians prior to Constantine”s corruption [see St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 A.D.) Lecture XXI]. . . Early Christians were persecuted for keeping their practices sacred, and not allowing non-Christians to witness them

A literal reading of the New Testament points to God and Jesus Christ being separate beings, united in purpose. . To whom was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, and Who was speaking to Him and his apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration?

The Nicene Creed”s definition of the Trinity was influenced by scribes translating the Greek manuscripts into Latin. The scribes embellished on a passage explaining the Trinity, which is the Catholic and Protestant belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The oldest versions of the epistle of 1 John, read: "There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water and the blood and these three are one."
Scribes later added "the Father, the Word and the Spirit," and it remained in the epistle when it was translated into English for the King James Version, according to Dr. Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Religion Department at UNC- Chapel Hill. . . .He no longer believes in the Nicene Trinity.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) have concern for their ancestors” spiritual welfare, so they practice proxy baptism. (1 Corinthians 15:29 & Malachi 4:5-6).

Only members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) continue these practices of First Century Christians. But Mormons don”t term Catholics and Protestants “non-Christian”. The dictionary definition of a Christian is “of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to a religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ”:. All of the above denominations are followers of Christ, and consider him the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament.

It”s important to understand the difference between Reformation and Restoration when we consider who might be the more authentic Christian. If members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) embrace early Christian theology, they are likely more “Christian” than their detractors.

* * *

And the National Study of Youth and Religion done by UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005 found that Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) youth (ages 13 to 17) were more likely to exhibit these Christian characteristics than Evangelicals (the next most observant group):
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . LDS Evangelical
Attend Religious Services weekly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71% . . . . 55%
Importance of Religious Faith in shaping daily life –
extremely important . . . 52. . . . . . 28
Believes in life after death . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 . . . . . . 62
Believes in psychics or fortune-tellers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 . . . . . . 5
Has taught religious education classes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 . . . . . . 28
Has fasted or denied something as spiritual discipline . . . . . . . . . . . .68 . . . . . . 22
Sabbath Observance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67 . . . . . . 40
Shared religious faith with someone not of their faith . . . . . . . . . . . . 72 . . . . . . 56
Family talks about God, scriptures, prayer daily . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50 . . . . . . 19
Supportiveness of church for parent in trying to raise teen
(very supportive) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .65 . . . . . . 26
Church congregation has done an excellent job in helping
Teens better understand their own sexuality and sexual morality . . . 84 . . . . . . 35

PMS_Chicago alludes to a point then moves on without elaboration. As a person who spent some years in the Mormon church I think the elaboration is important.

Kennedy found it necessary to distance himself from the Catholic hierarchy specifically because Catholic theology requires submission to the higher authority of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Would an American president be able to give ultimate priority to the authority of the constitutional and political requirements of the American enterprise? Or would the president's need to conform to church authority preclude this possibility?

Is it simple coincidence that the five members of the Supreme Court who have now ventured into determining medical decisions are also the same five members who are members of the Catholic church, so long associated with anti-abortion activism? That is certainly a fair topic of discussion and debate in our civil society.

As an active member of a faith that places absolute authority of its members' actions in a single, infallible person--the Prophet--is Mr Romney prepared to demonstrate his independence of that authority and therefore place in jeopardy his perceived place in eternity?

With the election of Mr Romney, limited in his actions by the voice of his Prophet, are we in effect electing the Prophet himself as President?

Who is this Prophet? What does he believe on the important issues facing our country and our world?

Please, please tell me how belief in vigin birth, transubstantiation, infallibility, golden plates, polygamy, life after death, a god that intervenes in human affairs can square with notions of good governance.

that best that can be said for religious candidates is that I tolerate their religous beliefs as a means towards obtaining good policy.

and the comparison between mormonism and evangelicalism is spot on. any good mormon is required to follow a code of conduct that is eerily similar to fundy's.

fundy's are scary.

mormonism is scary.

the fact that Romney got a SUBSTANTIAL amount of funding from mormon sources requires scrutiny.

Personal religiosity communicates that the candidate is a "good person," meaning that he or she is a person-–more realistically, projects the image of a person--with whom the electorate is comfortable and to whom it can relate at some imagined personal level

But this simply means that the electorate is bigoted. Inferring that someone is a "good person" from the fact that he or she is religious is no different from making the same inferrence from the fact that someone is white.

We have made significant progress fighting bigoted views in other areas, such as race and sex. It is time to eradicate this bigoted view as well.

Michael O'Neill,

You will be comforted to know that just as JFK made clear his political independence from the Vatican, Romney already has addressed your specific concerns directly in an interview with Hugh Hewitt:

"Would you ever expect a call from [LDS Church] President Hinckley or his successor?" I asked.

"No," he emphatically replied. "Absolutely not. And I'd also note that when you take the oath of office, that is your highest oath and first responsibility. That's true when you become governor, it's certainly true for anyone who becomes president. When I placed my hand on . . . the Bible . . . when I was sworn in as governor . . . my highest and first responsibility was to honor my oath of office and follow the Constitution and protect the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For those sworn into national office, their highest obligation is to the nation. It would be inappropriate for Church officials to contact me and it would be less than appropriate for me to take guidance from any institution other than caring first for the oath of office."


protestations can only go so far with a mormon. there is a deep, rich history of mormon thought that sees the US Government as an entity to be used and lied to.

romney is a transparent carpet bagger. how'd he wind up in Massachussets again?

Thank you, JaO.

Strange the way perspective changes your view of things.

I hope that a President would pray and ask God about going to war. God's commandments are so obviously at variance with warfare that I would expect any good Christian to be concerned about God being displeased with a decision to go to war.

If a man didn't feel the need to pray and consult with God about the moral incongruities of launching a war- I don't think I'd trust that man to be a Dog Catcher.

I guess the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is that an unbeliever doesn't understand how a believer thinks or how prayer or personal revelation works. Your depiction seems to be that God whispers in your ear and then you just do that. Like a prayer by a believer is somekind of schizophrenic experience.

Your description of a believer waking up one day and deciding to go to war because "God said to" just doesn't make sense to a believer.

In response to Garth:

Romney ended up in Massachusetts because his job took him there. It was his state of residence for most of his adult life. (He was raised in Michigan)

If he was a carpetbagger why would a Republican ever choose to run in Massachusetts?

If he was a carpetbagger he would have moved to Utah and run there, as several Utahans urged him to after the Olympics. Instead he returned to Mass.

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