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Monday, November 26, 2007

Progress is a Shibboleth

I like Peggy Noonan. I really do. She's a great writer with a habit of calm, penetrating analysis that almost always brings you to think about the world from a different perspective.

But not this time.

In her most recent essay, Mrs. Noonan makes the point that religion was not an issue in politics forty years ago. Mitt Romney's father campaigned for the presidency: his Mormonism was never a question. Richard Nixon's Quaker roots, Lyndon Johnson's Disciples of Christ upbringing, Nelson Rockefeller's Baptist background, none of this mattered.

She admits that Kennedy's Catholicism was something of an issue, but argues that religion never became a real political issue until the rise of the evangelical movement made Jimmy Carter's evangelicalism a major campaign theme. She decries the fact that today we constantly delve into candidates' religious backgrounds, even as she admits that the question is relevant.

But her analysis is uncharacteristic - it is hackneyed, done to death, old as Moses. As I was reading her essay, I found myself thinking, "I've read this before... not as well-written, but I've read it before." In fact, it is nothing more than the common complain that religion is a private matter and has no substantive place in politics.

Is that true?

Private Religion
C.S. Lewis wrote, "When the modern world says to us aloud, 'You may be religious when you are alone,' it adds under its breath, 'and I will see to it that you never are alone.'"

Mrs. Noonan correctly notes that Catholic candidates for the Presidency have always had a hard time of it and she correctly notes that religion was not much of an issue until Jimmy Carter came along. But she fails to think through the problem.

Why did evangelicalism make its rise in politics in the 1970's as opposed to the 1990's or the 1950's? Why have Catholic presidential candidates always had a hard slog no matter what the age?

The answers to both questions are quite straightforward: it's the problem of absolutism (or perceived absolutism) versus relativism.

Catholics were always opposed in political life precisely because Catholics were suspected of taking their marching orders from a foreign despot, an absolutist, in a word, the Pope. Al Smith didn't just lose his candidacy because he was a city boy in an agricultural nation - city boys like Woodrow Wilson had won before.

No, Al's problem was precisely that he was a Catholic whose Catholic values were necessarily seen as dramatically different than those held by a Protestant nation. Episcopalians may always have been called "the frozen chosen" but that was only because their worship was so close in outward form to Catholic worship. No one suspected them of actually being Catholics - the Anglican church had slaughtered too many priests for that suspicion to take root - but it was odd in comparison to the rest of America.

The Episcopalians shared Protestant values, and that was what mattered. Catholics lived in Catholic neighborhoods, Catholic ghettos, with their own distinct Catholic culture and Catholic life. They weren't really, fully Americans.

It was Catholic Faith that had always been the odd duck in the United States, thus it was Catholic Faith that was the harbinger of the change Noonan comments on. What 1930's Catholics were to 1930's Protestant Christian political elite, so have Christians in general become to the current political elite.

In the past, Catholics were attacked because they stood for something that the rest of the cultural elite did not. Today, Christians in general stand for something that the rest of the cultural elite does not.

No one asked about Nixon's Quaker roots or Johnson's Disciples of Christ upbringing because it wasn't a marker for anything. For all their ballyhooed theological differences, neither a 1950's Quaker nor a 1950's Episcopalian was going to vote to support legalizing gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, contraception or pornography. The cultural life of one was indistinguishable from the cultural life of another.

The Shibboleth
The Christian evangelical movement rose to political power in the late 1970's precisely because Christians began to realize that their values were no longer being represented among the political elites. Even denominations that were fine with contraception and abortion were not fine with the increasingly pornographic culture that contraception and abortion inevitably creates. Christians began to notice skews, gaps, lacunae, holes, empty spaces between where they stood and where the nation was going.

Today, asking about a political candidates' fervor in regards to religion is a short-hand way of asking where that candidate stands on a host of important cultural issues. Instead of delving into a dozen different topics, trying to ascertain the candidates' position on each, the voter asks one question: "What is your relationship to Jesus Christ?" The answer to that question simultaneously answers all the others.

The practice is as old as Scripture itself:
And the Gileadites took the passags of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, "Let me go over"; that the men of Gilead said unto him, "Art thou an Ephraimite?" If he said, "Nay" Then said they unto him, "Say now Shibboleth" and he said "Sibboleth" for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:5-6)
Test everything: hold to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Yes, Mrs. Noonan, religion is again an important question in politics.
Yes, this is progress
Yes, it is good.


m_david said...

Why did evangelicalism make its rise in politics in the 1970's as opposed to the 1990's or the 1950's?

I agree that the culture left the religious values behind, and this caused religious voters to band together when voting.

However, the Mormon angle wouldn't have drummed up so much attention in this case, because Mormons are pretty heavy on family and moral values.

You need to look elsewhere here. The answer is demographics. Evangelicals are having more kids now relative to the general population (Mormons have kids but are too small a population base to matter). And these new Evangelicals are educated about how wacky Mormanism is because they have to "pick" their religion.

The first place this sort of change shows up is in the primaries where smaller shifts matter more; it won't show up elsewhere for a while.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, Mormons are much like Catholics in that they believe in apostolic succession and they have a distinctively Mormon culture that's heavily ritualistic and driven by church elders who authoritatively promulgate doctrine.

Furthermore, given the essentially Arian understanding of Jesus Christ which Mormons promote, even fundamentalists recognize that Mormons are as far, if not farther, off the evangelical base than traditional Catholics.

In any case, Mormonism is only one card in this year's line-up. I've read interviews in which Hillary Clinton is touting her Methodist roots, Barack Obama insists he's a Christian and not a Muslim, etc.

Similarly, 2004's presidential race was not on Kerry's Catholicism so much as whether or not he was Catholic enough. That time through, we actually saw evangelicals decry Kerry's unwillingness to stick to Catholic doctrine: which is a crazy-nuts stand for evangelicals to take by historical standards.

Looking at the last several presidential elections in aggregate, the recent emphasis on faith is not an aberration in US politics. It signifies a basic underlying shift in the cultural milieu.

m_david said...

I should have been clearer in my above post above; let me try again.

First, I agree with your analysis: Catholics/Evangelicals all shifted starting around 1970. And I buy the Catholics-are-different angle pre-JFK. My only point is the Morman angle. Let me hit it by the numbers:

1) Starting around 1970 or so, secular people stopped having kids except for trophies (1-2 ave), but serious Christians kept having families (3-4 ave).

2) Catholics don't care much about protestant doctrine, so look more to the morals of the person (look at Kerry getting ditched). But Evangelicals do examine doctrine. They have to choose a church, and are always "looking" and arguing doctrine with each other and so know where the line between Christian and other is (Mormons are over the line). Catholics are close enough to be ok.

3) In the past, a Mormon would have slipped by. But today, we are starting to see some of the demographic fruits from Christians - the kids of these 1970 Christians are now voting too. Sure, the levels are small, but it doesn't take much in a primary (say 10-20%) to squash a potential in a close race. There are quite a few of these new Evangelicals (a younger, more serious set) that simply won't vote for a Mormon, but their parents would have.

My point is that I don't think this would have happened 20 years ago; not enough doctrine-serious Evangelical power in the primaries. But there is today, with the help of demographics (all around too, watch the Dems getting religion), but most obvious in the primary.

I would be interested if you see any errors in my theory.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I agree with your first two points. I am unsure about the third, but only in your assertion that Mormons would have slipped by in the past.

As you say, evangelicals are always looking at doctrine. I don't think that has changed in the last forty years. But it doesn't detract from your main point, which is the demography.

You are quite correct to point out that Christian demographics is also at play here, a point both Mrs. Noonan and I missed in our respective essays.

Unfortunately, it's unclear how the demography plays out. The youngest voters are also the voters least likely to be opposed to the cultural shift towards acceptance of abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.

However, that same cohort is notoriously difficult to get into a voting booth. One of the major problems with Ron Paul's candidacy is precisely that it relies on the college cohort, and they've never swung an election yet.

I agree that in the long run those Christian children-turned-adults will swing elections back towards the center at least, but I'm not certain that particular trend has really taken hold yet. Given our current slate of candidates, it doesn't appear to have had much impact on this election at this point.

Jordan Potter said...

Good analysis, Steve. Good column. You done good.

Patrick said...

Though I agree that religion being an issue in politics is good progress, in America's past it was usually a bad thing for Catholics. Whether being banned from many of the original founding colonies, being persecuted for their faith by the Know Nothing movement or abandoned by the Kennedys you can point to Catholics being left out politically since the founding of the country and why they were more politically insular than most christians. However, I believe the outpouring of christianity that Carter's followers embraced were in direct response to the perceived strength of the atheistic communists and less about moral certainty. It was only to show we were united against a common enemy, not that we were united in a common belief or shared morals. I sense that same type of christianity in the candidates today. It is strong in name, weak in action - nearly every candidate switching sides on moral issues when it made the most political sense. Each of them calls themselves christian in some ways, but I have a lot of trouble recognizing it in the religious, non-political sense. I'm not sure the watering down of the term christian to equal some political motive that shifts by the poll count is helpful to anyone.