Mitt Romney and the Religion of the Middle Class

So we now have Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for President.  It’s an odd thing in many ways, not because the party grandees threw their lot in with him–that’s par for the course.  It’s odd because they were able to get it past the people who supposedly dominate the party–the “Religious Right”, those dreadful Evangelicals who are supposedly gunning for a theocracy that would make John Calvin look like a wimp.

Such a result reminds us that only God is omnipotent.  Yes, we will have base enthusiasm problems, but both parties are having that, and those tend to get papered over with our polarised Electoral College system.  But there are still many Evangelicals out there who are uneasy about voting for a Mormon.  The obvious question is why.

There are serious doctrinal and theological differences between Mormonism and Christianity.  And I don’t think that it’s unfair to make the distinction either; many Mormons do.  Mormonism was intended to restore the faith to a supposedly pristine state, as the other churches were characterised as corrupt.  Since same churches (and the ones formed after them) haven’t gone along with the “Restoration” churches, it’s fair to say the Mormons’ basic opinion about the rest of us hasn’t changed, and we’re happy to reciprocate.

I could detail many of the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, and between Mormonism and itself.  For the moment, I’ll leave that to others.  What I want to concentrate on is the broader political and social implications of the conflict between Mormonism and Christianity on the one hand and both arrayed against a secularising culture with an “upstairs/downstairs” political alliance to advance that secularisation.

In trying to condense a great deal of American history and demography, let’s make a few stipulations.  First, if you want to be the central religion of a culture, you want to capture its key demographic.  In the United States, that means the “middle class” with all the complexities that go with that characterisation.  Up until the 1960’s, and especially in the immediate post-World War II era, that pride of place among religions belonged to Main Line Protestantism.  Other religions out there–including Evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Roman Catholics, the Mormons and even in a different way the Jews–were on the outside, not just looking in but trying to arrive themselves.  Each of these had their enclaves, be they regional, ethnic or what not, but none of them had the broad appeal to the American middle class that Main Line Protestantism had.

The decline of Main Line Protestantism is a well documented story, and that decline has become especially steep in the last twenty years or so.  That has created is a vacuum, and one knows that nature abhors a vacuum.  Each of the aforementioned contenders would like to fill that vacuum, and a great deal of the story of Christianity the last forty years or so is the story of the various attempts to fill that vacuum.  (I emphasise Christianity because Judaism, and to a lesser extent Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism aren’t the seekers of converts that Christianity is).

But none of these groups has really gotten the job done.  Roman Catholicism, for all its ability to get its people into the middle and upper reaches of our society, lacks the strong pastoral system and desire to mobilise its laity either for God or country to command the field.  Evangelicals, incessantly demonised by their media opponents and hampered by their own “low hanging fruit” approach to evangelisation and church growth, can’t get the breakthrough they’re looking for.  Charismatics and Pentecostals are even further behind the demographic curve than their Evangelical counterparts, although they have one key advantage which they haven’t figured out how to make best use of: their broad appeal to non-white people groups.

That of course leaves the Mormons.  In many ways they are the perfect cast for the role: superbly organised, hopelessly bourgeois, economically prosperous.  Those reasons and more explain Evangelicals’ hostility towards them: from their own perspective, they see Mormonism as their most single dangerous rival.  More than the isolationist Jehovah’s Witnesses or the apolitical Seventh Day Adventists,  Mormons are to Evangelicals what Mao Zedong was to Chiang Kai-Shek: a cancer to be removed at all costs.  Having a Mormon President, with all the favourable publicity and testimonial value that he would have for the LDS church, is a major source of consternation for Evangelicals in particular.

Unfortunately there are more serious problems out there.  The most serious of those problems is the growing appeal of secularism in our society.  It’s hard to communicate what that means and the appeal it has in a society as consistently religious as ours has been, but the possibility of secularism becoming this country’s favourite middle class religion is real–except for one trout in the milk…

That smelly fish is, of course, the current structure of American liberalism, embodied in the Democrat Party and the current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Same Occupant got there with what we call in politics an “upstairs/downstairs” coalition.  The way you keep such a coalition together is through patronage, which has become a powerful force in American politics, one overlooked by the mind-numbing pundits with their prognostications based on elections past.  The upstairs–be that upstairs employed by the state or by the very wealthy–basically spreads enough money around the downstairs so that the latter will keep them in power.  They get those funds from those caught in the middle, whom the upstairs thinks will continue working as always while they are taxed and regulated without relief.  When same middle falls down the stairs and quits being a cash cow, your economy collapses and you have poverty.

What Evangelical and Mormon have come to realise–implicitly if not explicitly–is that it doesn’t matter who becomes the new middle class religion if there is no middle class.  We have to save the middle class before we can fight over it, among ourselves or with the secularists.

That, ultimately, is the glue that holds the Republican Party’s hostile religious groups together.  To succeed we must convince a critical mass of the American people that it’s still possible to succeed by merit in a real economic system, and stacked against patronage that won’t be easy.  Whether this new-found unity will be enough to make the difference in November will be one for the record books.

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